Harry, Revised — Mark Sarvas

Mark SarvasHarry, Revised confounds virtually every criticism I want to throw at it: the callowness of its protagonist, Harry, is more than addressed by its end. The narrative point of view shifts quickly, but that became an aspect of the novel’s internal rhythm. Harry’s friend, Max, is a too-typical sidekick, but Harry and I were the ones fooled when Max announces his plan to move, justifying it by saying: “Thing is, I ask myself, and don’t take this wrong, is what did our friendship really amount to?” It’s a question emblematic of Harry’s dilemmas—most of which are self-imposed—because it’s really a question that asks, “What do you really amount to?”

After these issues have been dealt with, the positive aspects of Harry, Revised, remain: it’s a funny novel that often made me smile at, more often than with, Harry. The wonderful metaphors perk up with wonderful regularity, as when Harry’s dead wife, Anna picks men “out of the field of suitors blackening her front porch like a swarm of death and dung beetles,” or, a slightly more sober note, “[t]ime has lost its shape for [Harry] these days, feeling increasingly like a monochrome jigsaw puzzle.” Such descriptions are reserved for people, however; little is said about the setting of L.A., what Wilshire Boulevard feels like, or how Harry can be a doctor, as his profession seems more window dressing than central aspect of his character. Given the anonymity of L.A., however, it might be appropriate that the land itself is a mere conduit for the plot.

Harry, Revised begins with the newly found object of Harry’s affections, a tattooed 22-year-old waitress named Molly who seems an improbable fit for Harry. Then again, it’s hard to imagine who a probable fit for him would be, including his dead wife, Anna, a woman whose improbable love for Harry is equally improbably, and yet believably, explained. Her first reappearance in a time-shift is jarring—have we just entered a Henry James-esque world of ghosts?—but she is more appealing than her husband in the tradition of Julie in Richard Russo’s Straight Man. Even when the impending revelations about her that you know are coming arrive, she’s still the better person. The time shifts never confuse after the first one, though such devices can be occasionally disorienting. As a narrative game, they’re enjoyable and enhance rather than distract from the novel’s overall effect.

The narrative is unusual in other ways: a third-person genuinely omniscient narrator isn’t found much in modern fiction but is deployed to strong effect here. The present tense is more commonly employed but nonetheless not an everyday occurrence, especially in conjunction with the omniscient narrator, who describes Harry at the beginning—and maybe could describe him at the end—as having “always found it easier to deny, to disavow, and to disengage.” Or is this the free indirect speech much described James Wood, a Sarvas favorite? I’m not sure here: that last word, “disengage,” makes me think the narrator speaks, but perhaps this is also something Harry thinks about himself.

No minor characters are more than flat, which is fine when they’re often so well described: a mortician “was of a type equally at home purveying coffins and caskets or plots of Florida real estate.” Notice the resonance of “at home” followed by the mention of real estate, combined with the idea of caskets or the earth being a final resting home. Two pages later, a theme about Anna gets picked up that is becomes steadily more woven into the narrative: “Fondness-as-finance was the lingua franca of the Weldt family.” The repeated alliteration of the “f” sound brings us through the sentence and the latin phrase that might otherwise be awkward, its “franca” rolling into the “fondness” idea and “family.” Harry himself is perhaps too often described as average, as when “[h]e can’t bear the prospect of the face he knows all too well in all its ordinariness,” but even if Harry is ordinary, his journey is not. Later, “Having, as always, no strong preferences, Harry selects one of the few bottles that’s already open.”

These description make Harry sound unappetizing, and he is, but in yet another example of confounding expectations he’s also likable, perhaps because he recognizes his own failings and tries to surmount them in ways that aren’t going to make him a jerk, which would be the most obvious way to do so. He’s endearing despite occasional repulsiveness (lying, sleeping with prostitutes while married). Again, I have to return to the greatest novelty and the magic of Harry, Revised, which comes from this and from its ability to evade the flaws I want to cite but that just aren’t important.

For example, Harry’s scheme to woo Molly is straight out of high school, or the mind of an emotionally immature man—the two have some overlap—and its implausibility is both irritating and necessary. Clearly Harry is unfamiliar with ladder theory, Neil Strauss’ The Game, or the rest of the caddish, shallow books that, although they are caddish and shallow, nonetheless do impart some useful framework for thinking about and attracting woman. Good buddies of the sort Harry evidently lacks can serve the same function. Hell, even Slate runs stories on the dating market and, implicitly, how it can be manipulated. Instead of evaluating the wisdom of his approach, Harry shows the disadvantages of doing things his way through problems ranging from expense to (in)effectiveness. I diagnose Harry in clinical or economic terms, but his real problems are spiritual and emotional, and at times I marveled at his inability to perceive his own state, like when “[his] thoughts careen and collide in his brain but not amount of effort can move his lips,” or, a few paragraphs later, “The empty words pop like lightbulbs falling to the floor.” There Sarvas is the perfect simile again, the words shattered, no longer illuminating thought but leaving it in darkness. The “splitting” or breaking theme starts with Harry’s last name—rent, and not, I suspect, in the sense of an apartment—and continues as Harry’s life falls apart and is, perhaps, reforged.

The word “perhaps” is important there. As we learn, “Harry doesn’t like this [end of The Count of Monte Cristo], hadn’t reckoned on ambiguity. He likes happy endings, and he wants to see heroes get their due and villains get their just deserts.” As this implies, the ending is not entirely happy. Although I won’t give it away, the end reminds me of T.C. Boyle in the way he likes ending on unexpected, orthogonal vectors that must seem maddening to those who, like Harry, want to see justice meted out—whatever that means. Yet in a world of ambiguity and novels that reflect said ambiguity, discovering who the heroes and villains are and what just deserts means can be vastly harder than dealing those deserts. Yet the shattering of Harry’s complacency is necessary so he can rebuild some new kind of worldview separate from the one be began with; as the subhead to Chapter Thirteen says, “In which our hero begins to put the pieces together.” These chapter summaries are also intentionally archaic, like the ones in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Like the third-person omniscient narrator, however, they come to fit the story and end up concealing more than they reveal: How does Harry put the pieces back together? And does he really? Does Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage become something of a hero or overcome his cowardice and guilt? I’m not sure, and midway through the novel neither is Harry, as when he wonders: “It feels incomplete, this shard of self-knowledge […]”. Self-knowledge is a terrible and wonderful thing to behold. I’m not sure you’ll find completion in Harry, Revised, but I am sure that’s not a bad thing.

As mentioned previously, Sarvas will be at the University Bookstore on May 8 at 7:00 p.m.

Harry, Revised arrives

I’m finally back from Vermont and Massachusetts and in shape to work again: Alaska Airlines cancelled my Wednesday flight and left me stuck in a Boston hotel Till Thursday. The good news, however, is that I found Mark SarvasHarry, Revised:

In good company, of course.

He’ll be in Seattle on May 8 at the University Bookstore—7:00 p.m. Expect to see us there!

EDIT: I wrote a full review of Harry, Revised here.

Conversations with Robertson Davies

I’m tempted to summarize Conversations with Robertson Davies, a collection of interviews with the great author, but I can’t, and even if I could I’d probably do better to give a few thoughts stemming from a comment Davies made about reading. As you can probably surmise, I like Davies’s work, so I find his comments without a fictional scrim interesting too. One exchange particularly resonates:

Robert Fulford: Books are things to be studied, judged rather than experienced. I think you once said that the heresy of the critic is that he is a judge rather than experiencer of literature.
Davies: Yes. […] As for my own books, I hope that the readers will have to use their heads and be collaborators, which is a thing I stressed in that earlier book. They should be collaborators in creating the work of art which is the book.

I tend toward judgement, and my chief criterion for greatness is met when a book causes me to spontaneously stop judging and start experiencing. To be fair, I can’t fully stop judging, but to the extent that my reading becomes more experience and less judgment I am inclined to like and love the book that induces this sensation. The best of Davies’s books—The Deptford Trilogy, The Cornish Trilogy, The Cunning Man—all accomplish this goal. Cryptonomicon and Straight Man and Lord of the Rings achieve the same effect. I wish I could fully explain how and why they do, but part of writing about books is writing about the inexplicable. Criticism is an effort to reveal more of the mystery that can’t ever be fully revealed.

To intersperse Elmore Leonard:

[Q:] There’s this presumption that a book is somehow a higher form of art, of a higher form of expression, than a movie. Do you agree?
[Leonard:] I don’t think the book is a higher form at all. Because most books are not very good. They’re a chore to read.

Occasionally a worthwhile book is also a chore, but only very seldom, and usually because I don’t understand it at first, as I didn’t Romeo and Juliet when reading it as a high school freshman. Recently I described The Bad Girl with language that brings to mind duty. I think Davies felt similar to Leonard regarding bad books, or even books that aren’t essential (essential meaning different things to different people, of course, which might make the debate more a semantic than one getting at underlying truth). Elsewhere in Conversations, Davies recommends reading fewer books but reading them with more depth and feeling.

I hope to read with more depth and feeling, and part of the reason I write is to find both. Paul Graham explains the process well:

Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.

Wow! I started the post writing about Robertson Davies, but along the way became more interested in the diversions than the original topic. And that is a good thing: one idea bumps into another, reminding me of something else, and off I go. I hope that is reading with feeling and intellect. The Elegant Variation, in discussing the maladies affecting book reporting, says “Too many reviews are dull, workmanlike book reports.” I agree, and think that many books are dull and workmanlike, so perhaps the reviews reflect them. That’s why I felt a sense of wonder at Davies’ books, as well as Conversations: they are not dull and workmanlike, and I hope my writing isn’t. After reading Mark Sarvas’s comments, I’ve tried harder not to write dull, workmanlike book reports. Is it working?

I hope so. Davies wrote many reviews of varying quality, but he was also a man who knew good work when he saw it. Conversations is filled with criticism (in the bad sense) of academic criticism (in the sense of commentary). I’ve heard James Wood (a TEV favorite) and others I know I’ve read but can’t think to cite at the moment say or write the same. So here’s to them, and to Davies, and to reading, and to experience.

Good advice for writers

Mark Sarvas writes in The Elegant Variation regarding edits: “[…]I’ve learned to remove ego from the equation in these settings.”

Wise words concerning writing—I try to accomplish the same in my work. Although I’m not a novelist, I am a writer and most clients are unfamiliar with the writing process. When relationships or assignments sour, it’s often due to ego problems that are avoidable.

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