Short Stories Falling Short

Chelsey @ Chels and a Book has long been trying to convince me to read Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. When I was at the library recently, I saw “Anthony Marra” and for some reason assumed that that was the book even though I can actually read and knew it was called The Tsar of Love and Techno.

And still, days later I was disappointed to see that it was not A Constellation of Vital Phenomena that I had picked up.

I did read it though.


The Tsar of Love and Techno is a beautifully written book about the devastation left in the wake of the Soviet Union, with a focus on war and Chechnya.

But I wasn’t in love with it.

First things first – Marra is an exceptional writer. His prose is powerful and eloquent without being flowery or arrogant. My favourite line in the whole book has got to be:

Hipsterdom’s a tightrope strung across the canyon of douche-baggery.

There is an incredible amount of truth in that one line, the kind of sentence that makes you pause to take it in properly and nod your head in fervent agreement with. That’s the kind of writing we’re working with here.

But (and it’s a big ‘but’ for me) it’s a collection of linked short stories and I’ve just never been on board with short stories. I liked that they linked together but the stories that I wanted to be longer were never long enough and the titular story, The Tsar of Love and Techno, stubbornly wouldn’t end and it was arguably the worst of the lot.

There were a couple of devastating stories: the first one of the Soviet propaganda officer whose job it is to wipe out all trace of condemned people, covertly putting the face of his executed brother in the background of all his paintings only to be condemned by someone and face the same fate; Vera’s, who reached all her potential by the age of 8 when she was lauded as the embodiment of the Soviet dream for informing on her mother who used some extra butter to make a cake for the starving Vera, only to have her daughter inform on her decades later with different results; and Kolya’s, rebuffed by the most beautiful girl in the town, decides to become a career soldier, only to find peace re-planting a garden as little more than a slave to a rebel, the entire time holding onto a mix tape his brother made for him to listen to in the event of an emergency, always living for that time when he will actually listen to it.

I’m not giving up on Marra – as I said, he’s a very talented writer. It just didn’t add up to an enjoyable reading experience for me, only being invested in a handful of stories and waiting for something to happen, some pivotal character to arrive to tie it all together, to make all of it meaningful in a devastating conclusion. I was waiting for the devastation – something you expect when you read about the deprivation, the fear and the extreme cold of Siberia during the Soviet era – but it never quite arrived.

16 thoughts on “Short Stories Falling Short

  1. Too bad this book didn’t quite grab you. A lot of people seem to love it, but I get what you’re saying about short stories. Ah well, you still have A Constellation to look forward to. So do I, actually! 🙂
    That *is* a good line!

  2. Dare I say that I wasn’t completely in love with either this one or A Constellation? I completely agree that he is a wonderful writer, and you’ll find the gorgeous writing in Constellation that makes you stop and think about what you’ve just read. It just never came together for me. But you should still read Constellation. I’d like to know whether you like it better. You certainly won’t be left waiting for things to happen.

    • OK, this is good. Lowered expectations. Sometimes you just need to come at a book from a different angle to appreciate it. I would have been really frustrated to have loved A Constellation first and then read this one and felt this way.

  3. I sincerely hope you don’t let this mar your thoughts on Constellation! I do really hope you will still pick it up someday. I liked this collection, but I LOVED Constellation. I still hold a torch for it and hope you’ll get to it someday :).

  4. Oh I do really prefer short stories that are connected – yet these sound not too cheery. This would have to be a library grab after the holidays for me.

  5. Ha! That was one of my favorite sentences too. I’d definitely recommend giving his A Constellation of Vital Phenomena a try. I loved this book, but I still thought Constellation was better 🙂

  6. Pingback: Crime Fiction shorts: Partners in Crime | The Paperback Princess

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