Anthony Marra takes on Hollywood during the Second World War and much more in his latest novel Mercury Pictures Presents. The book delivers a broad cast of characters, each given a chance to shine, and visits some of the lesser known stories to come out of the War.
The book opens in 1941, Mercury Studios boss Artie Feldman is preparing to go to Washington to defend his films against the powerful censorship board. With him is his assistant Maria Lagana. Maria and her mother were refugees from fascist Italy, they fled fifteen years earlier when her father was exiled to the small village of San Lorenzo. Maria is one of the many employees of the studio who are refugees or outsiders. When America enters the war, Artie goes from potential to pariah to prophet overnight and the studio pivots to making war propaganda films. Meanwhile Maria is dealing with Vincent, a figure from her past who appears with news of her father.
This precis sells this multilayered, character and incident filled novel short. There is so much going on in Mercury Pictures Presents, so many different plot threads and stories that it is hard to capture in a few sentences. Whether it be the story of Vincent’s miraculous escape from San Lorenzo, or the story of the wooing of Maria’s aunt by the local undertaker, or the story of the German refugee who is drafted by the US army to build replicas of Berlin suburbs in the Utah desert. Marra’s skill is in bringing all of these stories, and the characters that live at the centre of them, together into a cohesive and effective whole with delicious language and dialogue that is insightful, rich and often humorous.
Mercury Pictures Presents is the complete package – a strong historical story grounded in real events, peopled by a host of complex and engaging characters, in a well written narrative. Marra’s debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena won a slew of awards, it would be no surprise if this follow up finds itself on some award short lists of its own in the coming year.