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book review

Jess Taylor, author of short story collection Pauls.

The Tsar of Love and Techno

By Anthony Marra

Random House Canada, 332 pages, $24.95


By Jess Taylor

BookThug, 185 pages, $20

Linked story collections fall into a fairly established tradition, especially in Canada, where they trace their lineage back through Alice Munro's Who Do You Think You Are? and Lives of Girls and Women and Margaret Laurence's A Bird in the House, all the way to (arguably) Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Publishers, in particular, like linked collections because they can sell them as novels, or at least as story sequences that display novelistic properties.

It is also true for American writer Anthony Marra's sophomore effort, The Tsar of Love and Techno, which follows up on his well-received debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. That book was praised for its deep engagement with recent history and its juxtaposition of tragedy and whimsy, all things that persist in the new work. Like the earlier novel, the stories are mostly set in Russia during and after the vicious Chechen conflicts of the 1990s that rained violence down on the former Soviet Union. They follow a small cast of characters – including the granddaughter of a famed Russian ballerina; a former museum director turned tour guide in Grozny; and a mercenary soldier captured by Chechen rebels and tossed into a pit with his comrade-in-arms – whose interconnected stories form a vibrant mosaic of life in post-Soviet Russia.

Marra actually opens his book well before the advent of the first Chechen war, in Leningrad of 1937. The Leopard centres on Roman Osipovich Markin, a would-be portrait artist who works for the Soviet Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. His job is to "correct" official paintings and photographs by airbrushing out dissidents and other enemies of the state to preserve an officially approved version of history for the Communist apparatchiks. As his own artistic protest – and as a means of assuaging his guilt over his involvement in his brother's execution for "religious radicalism" – he begins inserting images of his dead sibling into the works he censors. "Do I worry I'll be caught?" he muses rhetorically. "Please. My superiors are far too focused on who I take out to notice who I put in."

This comment – with its combined cynicism and barbed humour adjoining thematic concerns of history, erasure and the various ways art is used and abused in the service of freedom (or its antithesis) – forms the bedrock for what is to come. The painting into which Roman inserts the likeness of his murdered brother becomes a leitmotif that wends its way through the volume, as do a mixtape that the ill-fated mercenary, Kolya, carries with him, and a cut-rate espionage thriller called Deceit Web, which the ballerina's granddaughter is cast in after she hooks up romantically with a corrupt Russian oligarch.

Throughout these stories – which can stand alone or be read as one continuous, interlocking narrative – Marra walks a precarious tightrope, balancing humour with pathos, and punctuating achingly human situations with the stark exigencies of politics and war. The author's use of violence is impressive and vivid: Bodies are rent and mistreated, not in any gratuitous way, but as a means of underscoring the degradations and depredations of war and its aftermath. And the directness of the prose belies the range and depth these stories achieve: Marra's ability to inhabit characters as diverse as a Soviet-era censor and a contemporary adolescent girl is notable, as is his effective use, in the story Granddaughters, of the first-person plural voice.

Only the brief final entry, The End, which adopts the perspective of Kolya after he has been killed by a rebel land mine, comes across as unconvincing. This metaphysical reverie seems unnecessary after the carefully calibrated, grounded realism of the pieces that precede it. Readers might be advised to set the book aside having completed the penultimate story, after which they can marvel at the imaginative edifice that the author has created and sustained to that point.

Toronto's Jess Taylor does not link the stories in her debut collection as tightly as Marra – though certain characters do reappear in successive entries, many of the stories in Pauls are discrete, united only by similarities in theme and subject, and the fact that they each contain a character named Paul. Depending on the story, Paul may be male or female (short for "Paulina"), and may serve as the central character or a figure on the periphery.

What unites these characters – aside from their names – is their woundedness. They are all scarred, be it psychically, emotionally or physically, and they are all trying to navigate a path through life that will allow them to heal or, at the very least, find a way to live with the wounds they have accrued.

In Claire's Fine, the title character, whom we are given to understand has been the victim of a sexual assault, works in a greeting-card store, where she is in charge of the section devoted to sympathy cards. (This is one example of Taylor's penchant for playing her hand too obviously; another is Paul's affliction in Breakfast Curry – a blood condition that prevents cuts on his body from healing.) The title of Claire's story is bleakly ironic, and she muses at one point on the various connotations associated with the word "fine": "When someone asks, How are you? You can say, Fine, and mean the opposite, or you can mean, I am like a careful line of stitching, how are you? You can mean, I am delicate. Be careful that I don't get snagged and unravel."

The characters in these stories are in constant danger of unravelling; Taylor is adept at capturing the anxiety-ridden tenor of the current zeitgeist. Paulina in Multicoloured Lights is a submissive who has suffered abuse at the hands of her cousin (with whom she had a sexual relationship before he tried to kill her) and is a victim of date rape after she goes home with a man who slips something in her drink (she doesn't remember the assault, but comes to naked in an apartment hallway). The policewoman who takes Paul's statement says there is not enough to follow up on: "As far as we know, you guys could have both just gotten retarded-drunk."

All of this speaks to issues that are front-and-centre in the public sphere, and does so in a way that is frank and resonant. But the effect is diluted by a pervasive similarity among the stories – most of the narrators sound the same, an effect that is unfortunately heightened by the choice to use the same character name throughout – and a tendency toward heavy-handedness. The ice storm that looms over the long final story, Degenerate, is too explicit as a reflection of the story's thematic concerns, even if it hadn't already been used in a similar capacity by Rick Moody two decades before.

Steven W. Beattie's column on short stories appears monthly.