In some ways, Mercury Pictures Presents is a fascinating examination of the ways human lives are caught up in the tides of larger forces–be they governmental, corporate, or social. If only the characters were as interesting as the history they find themselves caught up in. Maria Lagana comes closest to being a great character, but her story is undercut by the sheer scope of this novel. Instead of being the focus, she’s too frequently relegated to the sidelines and the preponderance of stories ultimately drowns her out. Lagana immigrated to the United States with her mother after her father, an anti-fascist defense attorney, ran afoul of Mussolini’s government. She finds work as a typist at a movie studio named Mercury Pictures, where her experience with governmental censorship makes her an unexpected asset and she quickly rises to the rank of Associate Producer and right hand to the studio head. She is dating a Chinese American actor named Eddie who is reduced to playing stock (racist) villains because no one is willing to cast him as a lead. The story initially sets up censorship as the central conflict as Lagana is preparing for the studio head to testify before Congress, but the arrival of World War II sends the narrative flinging in multiple directions instead, following a multitude of other characters as the story fans out.
Each character is both thwarted by the movements of forces outside of their control and given new opportunities by those same forces. The problem is there’s just way too much going on by the end of the book. A story that begins intimately ends up feeling crowded. A novel that begins with a simple purpose ends up drowning in ideas. The most disappointing thing is that Marra can’t balance all of the stuff he throws into this novel. He flirts with interesting ideas, then either leaves them unfinished or passes them off by relying on cliches so he can go on to the next idea. For instance, Mercury Pictures starts producing propaganda films to help the government with the war effort, then becomes frustrated when the war footage they are provided doesn’t look “real” enough. Marra ultimately only nods to this idea without forming it any further, but then he revisits it by having a war photographer stage battle scenes so he can better capture the reality of them. And even then, he does little more than present the idea to the reader before moving on to the next storyline. This seems to be the entire purpose of using Hollywood as the center of what is clearly actually intended to be a war novel, and yet Marra just leaves this idea hanging unformed.
Mercury Pictures Presents is out of focus. It’s trying to do too much, relying on uninteresting characters and overly familiar story beats to hint at too many ideas. It feels like there’s a shimmering story in here somewhere (most likely the one about Maria and Eddie stuck in a rigid studio system that the novel opens with) but it’s too underdeveloped to celebrate.