December 27, 2016: “The Tsar of Love and Techno” by Anthony Marra

Say hey, Story366! Today has been somewhat of a back-to-it day, as I’d spent the last four days without doing much of anything, save this blog, focusing on holiday prep, the holidays, and finally a day when I didn’t do much at all. Everything started this morning with one of those half-awake, half-asleep states, me dreaming that I was waking up for a couple of hours before I actually did. I knew when I went to sleep that I’d have a full plate today, but didn’t set an alarm, causing my brain to completely fuck with me instead. In today’s scenario, I dreamed that I had indeed woken up, but was doing my work from my bed, reaching over the side to a computer console and making a word find for my class. I’d found a good program online that makes word finds automatically, so all I had to do was type in the words I wanted my students to find. As soon as I finished the word find, I woke up (at least I think I did …). It was 10:48. I hate my brain.

You might be wondering why a college professor is having an anxiety dream about making word finds, but it’s based on the fact that my Intro to Fiction final, one semester, featured a word find on the back page as extra credit. I hid a bunch of authors’ last names in the letter cube and thought it would be a fun way for them to end the semester, pick up a couple of bonus points, make me look clever and cool. Nope. Only a couple of the students even attempted the word find, most of them getting to it, smiling a bit—there was a chortle or two—then turning in their final, ready to start break. I’d spent a couple of hours making that goddamn word find, but the message was clearly received: I cut the word find from the final after that. The only reason I can figure why this all showed up in my dreams last night is because this last semester, I told my students this story—about the word find on the final—and they were all like, Yeah, do that! That would rock! However, I went in the night before to print the final and forgot to include it. The next morning, they were all like, Hey, where’s the word find? I’m rusty on my Jung, but I’m pretty sure that’s why I had a two-hour dream about word finds this morning instead of waking up (again, if I am indeed awake now).

One of the things that made today’s plate full was doing this post, of course, and I knew that I was going to be reading from Anthony Marra‘s The Tsar of Love and Techno, out from Hogarth, the book that, hands down, has been on my to-do stack the longest. I think I picked this book up in February or March. Since, I’ve grabbed it on several occasions, choosing it as the book to read and write about that day. As soon as I’d open the table of contents, though, I’d always shrug and put it back, as The Tsar of Love and Techno features all long-as stories, inclduing a title story at the center that’s seventy-four pages long (with a few title pages thrown in for style). Still, my days are always full, no matter what time of year it is, so when I’m planning my day, it’s rare that I think, “I’ll read a seventy-page story today” when I could instead say, “I’ll read an eleven-page story today.” Yes, I know, I teach creative writing and literature and seventy pages is really nothing—last year I read Adam Johnson’s entire Orphan Master’s Son in one day, in one sitting—but psychologically, Marra’s book and its long stories intimidated me and I started avoiding it.

Determined to include The Tsar of Love and Techno in this first 366, I planned on featuring it this week, and this morning—after my word find nightmares—I tucked that book in my bag and ran off to my office, set on reading that long title story and at least one more piece. I owed it to Marra—who I think has somehow magically known about this avoidance and has felt slighted—and I owed it to myself, plunking twenty-five bones down on this book at the local B&N. In my office, I did all that stuff that had been lingering for the past week, then sat back and opened Marra’s book to “The Tsar of Love and Techno.”

Before I go any further, I should tell you about this collection, which is made up of linked stories, set in Russia over the course of the last century—plus a concluding piece that takes place in the future in outer space—all of them involving a rather obscure Russian painting by an obscure Russian painter named Zakharov. The painting serves as a MacGuffin of sorts, featured as a talking point in some stories, a major plot point in others, passed along from character to character like a chain. The characters all seem to be related, or at least know each other, each character getting their own story, their own time with the painting, sort of Marra’s version of the Stanley Cup.

The book is also organized, at least in the table of contents, like a mix tape, with the first half of the stories constituting “Side 1” and the second half “Side 2,” “The Tsar of Love and Techno” smack-dab in the middle as the “Intermission.” Each story also has a subheading of sorts that lists where the story is taking place and in what year, Marra giving clues to the reader so he doesn’t have to be all didactic and reveal it somehow in each and every story.

“The Tsar of Love and Techno”—subtitled “St. Petersburg, 2010; Kirovsk, 1990s,” features Alexei, a young college student who’s not making much progress on his degree, not sure what he wants to do with his life, sharing an apartment in St. Petersburg with his landlady’s sons, who have set a disco up in the bathroom and won’t let him use it. Alexei is thrilled, then, to get a first-class ticket to Moscow from Galina, a girl from his home town who used to date his brother and is now Russia’s top runway model and movie star, her picture on every billboard in every town in Russia. He has not seen Galina in years and is taken aback by her life in a luxury hotel, where she spends more money in a day than Alexei sees in a year. Galina has called Alexei to Russia for two reasons: 1) to tell him that his brother, Kolya, is dead; and 2) to give him a painting, the painting, the Zakharov. As it turns out, when filming in Chechnya, she used her celebrity to ask around about Kolya and was told he died in a field, the very field that the Zakharov painting depicts. She bought the painting, but now that she’s divorcing Oleg, a nickel magnate, she doesn’t want it counted as an asset and offers it to Alexei as a keepsake, of sorts, of his brother’s death (which is pretty grim, as I know from reading another story how Kolya died in that field). Alexei returns to his hellish life as a man who can’t graduate, who can’t use his own bathroom, who doesn’t have a place in the world.

That gets things in motion in terms of the frontstory, as Alexei decides his to be a complete sham. He robs the disco brothers of all their valuables and buys a plane ticket to Chechnya, where he attempts to find Zakharov and return the painting to him, plus see that field where his brother died.

This is only half of “The Tsar of Love and Techno,” however. Marra goes back and forth, using numbered sections, alternating between the Alexei-painting plot and Alexei and Kolya’s backstory. He traces their lives from the time they were kids in Kirovsk, which is described as the most polluted city in the world, its lake so filled with mercury and other chemicals, half the town’s population dies from cancer by fifty. The first scene with young Alexei and Kolya has them witnessing a mob execution out in the woods—a story, I’m guessing, we get the full picture of in one of the other pieces in this book—and then their lives as the sons of a man who is building a homemade cosmonaut museum, honoring Russia’s space program. The boys grow up, lose their mother, move from school to school, but most of all, this half of the story is the tale of how Kolya, a poor kid from a dirty town, came to date (and almost wed) the country’s most beautiful and glamorous starlet, Galina. I won’t go too far into that, but in short, it’s because she was a kid in that same dirty town, Kolya was a badass and a sweetheart, and, well, future supermodels have to date somebody before they’re famous.

“The Tsar of Love and Techno” features a whole lot more story than this, as I still haven’t revealed what the the mix tape has to do with any of this, how Kolya and Galina got separated, and what our protagonist and narrator, Alexei, has to do with all of it. He’s a peripheral narrator for most of the story, but his impulsive sojourn to the site of Kolya’s death makes him more of a player and less of a narrator (though, of course, he narrates those parts as well). Even though this story is seventy pages long, I don’t want to go any further, as this piece, it’s back-and-forth format, its intensity, its exotic setting, its historical ties, and its vivid characters all made the read far beyond worth it, those seventy pages flying by before I knew it.

I read another story when I was done with “The Tsar of Love and Techno”—”The Prisoner of Caucusus,” Kolya’s story, which falls as the last piece on Side 1—and really want to read the rest of this book, find out what happens to these characters, to this painting, discover how it all ends in outer space in the distant future. The Tsar of Love and Techno, the first work I’ve read by Anthony Marra, is one of my favorite collections from 2016 (meaning, of the ones released this year), though if someone called this novel (or at the very least, a novel in stories), I wouldn’t argue with their nomenclature. Great book. Glad I got off the schneid and finally pulled it down from the shelf.