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From Acorn to Oak: On the Story Origins of Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Anthony MarraIn 2009, Narrative Magazine published Anthony Marra’s short story “Chechnya.” He was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop then and “Chechnya” was his first published story. It won a Pushcart Prize before Marra expanded it into his first published novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, released this week by Hogarth. Lauded by Ann Patchett for being the most “ambitious and fully realized” first novel since Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena connects the lives of six characters surviving the dense hellscape of war-torn Chechnya, 1994-2004.

I finished the novel two days before last month’s Boston bombing. As details emerged about the Tsarnaev brothers and their link to Chechnya and Dagestan, I dollied between the scene at the marathon finish line and the equally gruesome, if only fictitious, scenes in the book, both heavy with the sudden loss of life and limb and police-state manhunts. With coincidence in setting pointing up the book’s everything-is-connected theme, I turned to Marra’s “Chechnya,” a temporary stay from my news-obsessed state.

What reading that story revealed about the novel might be best captured in one of Marra’s own lines from the book: “Before they met, your mother and father held their love for you inside their hearts like an acorn holds an oak tree.” Likewise, “Chechnya” holds A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Protagonists, events, bits of dialogue, word-for-word lines, and even entire passages from the short story are woven into the novel, which folds in on itself, launching forward and backward, from days to decades at a time. If you were to read “Chechnya” first, the novel might—in some, but not vital ways—be spoiled. Picking up “Chechnya” after the novel, however, highlights one of Marra’s major themes: one thing really does lead to everything.

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