En­gag­ing story of a bun­gler’s trans­for­ma­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jen­nifer Levasseur

ONLY a true lover of lit­er­a­ture, one in­ti­mate with its re­wards and short­com­ings, could write such a hi­lar­i­ous and oddly poignant story of a man who, forced to rein­vent him­self, chooses the guise of Ed­mond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo , abridged. In lan­guage at turns eru­dite and low­brow, Mark Sar­vas cre­ates in Harry, Re­vised a char­ac­ter and a world al­most too easy to en­joy, see­ing how glo­ri­ously en­joy­able he makes the writ­ing of the book ap­pear.

Read­ers may recog­nise Sar­vas’s name from his pop­u­lar lit­er­ary blog, The El­e­gant Vari­a­tion, a site ded­i­cated to pro­mot­ing the best of con­tem­po­rary fiction and damn­ing the worst. While some of his ca­su­al­ties will want to strike back at this, de­but novel, they’ll find lit­tle to dis­like.

He sets out for a hu­mor­ous take on an ev­ery­man’s ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis, one tem­pered with re­gret and de­spair ( and sprin­kled with lit­er­ary quips and in- jokes), that makes the reader chuckle and nod in sym­pa­thetic ca­ma­raderie. All of th­ese things he masters with ap­par­ent ease.

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Harry Rent, ra­di­ol­o­gist and bum­bler, finds it nat­u­ral to de­fine him­self by what he isn’t: ‘‘ I’m not a golfer, I’m not a dadaist, I’m not a plum­ber, I’m not a cross- dresser ( though I have been tempted).’’ Like some of the great clas­sics ( Thack­eray’s Van­ity Fair springs to mind), Harry, Re­vised con­tains chap­ter ti­tles that tell the reader ev­ery­thing and noth­ing — ‘‘ In which our hero or­ders a sand­wich and is late for an ap­point­ment’’ — while firmly es­tab­lish­ing the book’s faux- lit­er­ary her­itage and the fun Sar­vas plans to have with it.

This is all part of the game with Harry, Re­vised , the story of an an­ti­hero whose most ad­mirable traits in­clude an al­most un­be­liev­able naivety and an en­dear­ing self- con­scious­ness that forces him to spend hours won­der­ing what to do with his hands. His worst find him do­ing just the wrong things with those ap­pendages: en­ter­tain­ing pros­ti­tutes and spin­ning lies that threaten to wreck his seem­ingly per­fect mar­riage to Anna, avid cy­clist, per­fect spec­i­men of the fe­male form, and the child of old money, its priv­i­leges and in­se­cu­ri­ties.

As the novel opens, Harry avoids any thoughts about Anna’s sud­den, un­ex­pected death and the ways he may have con­trib­uted to it. To es­cape im­pend­ing grief, he does what any ra­tio­nal, heartbroken man might do: he stalks a 22- year- old work­ing at a greasy spoon, a post­colo­nial stud­ies

grad­u­ate stu­dent who’s fin­ish­ing her the­sis, Pa­tri­ar­chal Modes in Con­tem­po­rary Fiction: Just Who the F . . k Is the White Man to De­cide What Passes as ‘‘ Lit­er­ary’’?. Through young, beau­ti­ful, tat­tooed Molly, he forges a path to a new life and con­scious­ness. And it’s all based on her lunch rec­om­men­da­tion: the fried, sug­ared, jam- coated Monte Cristo sand­wich:

A de­scen­dant of the croque- mon­sieur, al­though Harry doesn’t know this. He imag­ines it to be some pro­mo­tional tie- in from Du­mas’s day, which gets it wrong by about a hun­dred years. But he does know the story of the count, of the man falsely im­pris­oned who rein­vents him­self and ex­acts re­venge on those who wronged him. . . . He, too, can be Dantes. At times en­dear­ingly un­be­liev­able,

Harry’s story con­tains just the right amount of slap­stick. The nar­ra­tor trails Harry’s mis­steps, en­joy­ing each blun­der, re­lat­ing it all to the reader through barely con­cealed laugh­ter, as though Harry is ev­ery­one’s lov­able, loser friend. Even Harry knows he’s a wreck. He can see him­self mak­ing id­i­otic de­ci­sions with­out pause, but this seems the only method that quells self- re­flec­tion. He can’t even man­age the stake­out he or­ches­trates to dis­cover the path to Molly’s em­brace: the jelly dough­nuts are even worse than the Monte Cristo and he drinks so much cof­fee that he has to dance in his seat.

His im­petu­ous de­ci­sion to em­u­late Du­mas’s fa­mous hero, and there­fore re­make his life, is fraught with chal­lenge. ‘‘ Abridged or unabridged?’’ he pon­ders. ‘‘ That is the ques­tion.’’ Not un­til late in his read­ing does he won­der if he’s cho­sen the right lit­er­ary char­ac­ter to im­i­tate, or whether he, like Dantes, has a right to ex­act re­venge on any­one.

Sar­vas achieves some­thing rare in Harry, Re­vised . A de­cep­tively easy, im­me­di­ately en­gag­ing read, the novel se­cretes small truths among its wisecracks and pas­tiche. As a comic novel, Harry, Re­vised ranks among the best of its kind. At the same time, its lan­guage el­e­vates it to lit­er­ary suc­cess. Jen­nifer Levasseur is a Melbourne- based writer and book­seller.

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