Review: “Mercury Pictures Presents,” by Anthony Marra

About halfway into the novel, Maria finds herself in the studio’s screening room sifting through a copy of “Triumph of the Will” as she helps to oversee the studio’s new wartime efforts. As she watches Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous piece of Nazi propaganda — “infamous” precisely because of its artfulness — she can’t help wondering: “What were Hollywood’s valentines against this opus of domination? How could a film industry historically prohibited from propaganda compete with a film industry created to single-mindedly pursue the goal?”

What undermines Riefenstahl’s movie for Maria, ultimately, is its coldness, its ability to construct spectacle “without betraying the slightest curiosity in human beings.” What animates Marra’s novel, conversely, is the opposite: an almost boundless inquisitiveness as it probes the lives of an expansive cast, not just Artie’s and Maria’s and Giuseppe’s, but also those of a German miniaturist named Anna Weber; a Shakespearean actor named Eddie Lu, who’s been reduced to playing racist caricatures; not least that of a photographer named Vincent Cortese, whose Italian roots entwine with Maria’s and whose real name, indeed, may be something else. Even Ned Feldman, Artie’s twin brother who battles him for studio control and who’s the closest thing this novel has to a villain (it’s the classic Hollywood constellation, with one brother the creative force and the other the bean counter out of New York), is rendered with a warm, if sweetly detached, comedic interest.

But the nature of art, of course, changes over time, and so does the nature of propaganda. “Mercury Pictures Presents” is shot through with artifice: with studio sets that look like Italy, suburban camouflage painted on the roofs of Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, even a gargantuan Berlin that is reconstructed for the purpose of propagandistic realism in Utah. This artifice is more than just a comment on Hollywood, or on propaganda: It seems, rather, a remark upon the nature of reality itself. Art, or propaganda, is never merely one thing or the other: Each might borrow against the persuasions of the other, or might have to muddle itself just a little bit in order to exist at all. Art’s compromises and contradictions, Marra suggests, are precisely those of human nature. The success of “Mercury Pictures Presents,” both the novel and the Hollywood entity it depicts, is evanescent and ambiguous, enduring and clear all at once. Whether Artie, the showman, and Maria, the book’s historical anchor and ethical conscience, will survive is one question, but the ideas posed by Marra’s novel assuredly do, and they resonate all the more strongly through our own contemporary, distressingly fascist-adjacent, moment.

Matthew Specktor is the author, most recently, of “Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles.”

MERCURY PICTURES PRESENTS, by Anthony Marra | 408 pp. | Hogarth | $28.99

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