Engaging story of a bungler’s transformation
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.
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.