Three Guys One Book is an independent blog developed by three friends who work in the book business. Dennis Haritou has bought books for Barnes and Noble for seven years, for warehouse clubs for five, and has led a book club. He is currently Director of Merchandise at Bookazine. Jason Chambers has been in the book business for over fifteen years, including tenures as General Manager/Buyer at Book Peddlers in Athens, GA, and seven years as a Buyer and Merchandise Manager at Bookazine. He recently left Bookazine to work in Boston, as an Independent Bookstore Consultant. Jason Rice has worked in the book business for ten years at Random House in sales and marketing and Barnes & Noble as a community relations manager. Currently he is an Assistant Sales Manager and Buyer at Bookazine. His fiction has appeared in several literary magazines online and in print. He is also the pseudonymous book reviewer Frank Bascombe who has written a monthly book review column for the film and television website Ain’t It Cool News since 2001.
Harry, Revised by Mark Sarvas has just been published by Bloomsbury. It is a story about Harry Rent and his life after the death of his wife, which occurred while she was under the knife of a plastic surgeon. Mark Sarvas is a well known blogger who has received landslides of praise for his blog The Elegant Variation.
Jason Rice: When I first heard that Sarvas had written a novel and that it was actually going to see the light of day, I have to admit I was skeptical and a little jealous. Here was a man, not unlike his Internet peers, who had arrived, crossed over to the world of book publishing and made a name for himself.
The third person point of view was very effective for me and it almost scared me off. I especially didn’t like how Harry was having his thoughts placed into his own head, my head and where he almost seemed inert on the page, and a little bit forced. I’d read a review of the book somewhere and knew the outcome of the first chapter, but was still surprised at just how insular he was being written. At the same time, life was being slowly breathed into his carcass and after a few pages his eyes were open and he was describing the surroundings and bringing everything into focus, not only for us, but for himself. Immediately after that, Dennis, you asked me how I liked it, and I complained a little, more just to complain, not really meaning it, about how the voice was working overtime, you’d yet to start, but I had your interest. Jason, you were silent throughout so that meant you were reading it, and would wait to pass judgment. Immediately the novel took shape and we have Harry Rent up and walking around, mourning his dead wife and finding a path to a new life through two women at his favorite lunch spot; one older and on the surface unappealing the other the object of Harry’s desire, his every waking, breathing desire. It started to get exciting when Sarvas, who had basically gone into hiding, not showing his hand at all, realized Harry with beautiful characterizations and began to reveal his flaws. While Harry is busy hatching a scheme to bed the desirable waitress, we get to flashback to see just how he got to this point in his life. These sections soar with brilliance, telling us only what we need to know, across a landscape that is purely cinematic.
Jason Chambers: Your initial thoughts and skepticism on Harry, Revised are interesting to me, JR, because I really had no knowledge of him or his blog before reading this book. I will no doubt seek him out after the fact so I can see the kind of work he does there in comparison to this novel. It will be interesting to see if advance knowledge of the author informed your interpretation of the book in any way in contrast to my own ignorance of him. That being said, let me comment on a few of your opening thoughts: The narrator is as interesting as Harry is for the first few chapters. I don’t mean that to come across as a negative; in a lot of so-called “funny” novels, either the character is funny or the situation is amusing, but in this case the narrator is wry, insightful, tongue-in-cheek, and perhaps a little wicked. He describes sad (or inexplicably non-sad) Harry and the funeral day with such clarity and wit that I was compelled to read on long before I had any empathy or connection with Harry. As Harry’s character develops, the narrator seems to fade into the background as Harry and the action take over. When it does, the book is still funny, but in a different vein of humor.
Fortune and poor judgment thrust Harry into situations not designed for the squeamish; eventually, I had to stop reading the book on the train to work because the several scenes were so cringe-inducing that my groans and facial gymnastics were attracting more attention than I really wanted. As well, I agree with your assessment of the development of Harry in many ways. In a way, much like in Harry’s relationships on the page, he is a hard man for a reader to like. Even his “good deeds” have a motivation that is questionable at best and lecherous at worst.
Contrarily, however, the more bad things we learn about Harry — infidelity, jealousy, etc — the more we like him for his attempt to become someone other than what he has been. The deeper I went into his confessional memories and his misguided present, the more I hoped for him to find the self-knowledge that eluded him. One real strength Sarvas displayed in Harry’s characterization was not overwriting him. It would have been easy, I think, to write Harry as a total failure, based on his character flaws, but he is not. He is a liar, a social inept, and emotionally vacant, but he is fairly smart and successful, and attempts to develop a rational strategy to overcome his obstacles. Admittedly, his strategy to emulate The Count of Monte Cristo was perhaps not the best plan for self-actualization, or to get the girl, but for someone out of touch with himself and most human feelings, it was the best he could do at the time.
Dennis Haritou: Jasons, I have to admit that I’m not much of a blog reader but I did look into The Elegant Variation after I sensed that JR had such respect for the site. I’m also impressed by Mark’s move from web magic to fictional magic on the page and, believe me, writing does seem like magic to me. When I read a new book, I relate it to old books. Mark’s move into new writing territory reminded me of something that I learned in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt. Men and women from all walks of life were writing in Italy in those days. Essays, letters, poems, fiction and drama, were being circulated among friends and colleagues. It was: “Read mine and I’ll read yours.” And being willing to offer the writer criticism so they could improve was considered a big compliment. So there was an awful lot of paper being passed around by those Renaissance types. It reminded me of blogging. It’s partly the reason, I think, that “The Renaissance” got to be where it is today. Hence the name. So I think that the combination of blogging and writing as an art is part of a great tradition.
My friends, the Jaces, have talked about the narrator’s voice and the character’s voice in Revising Harry: All that shifting around, that bobbing and weaving, between those two voices, like basketball players angling for their shot, is great stuff. I recently read a galley of James Wood’s forthcoming book, How Fiction Works provided to me by the thoughtful JR. James Wood talks about the ambiguity be
tween those two voices, about how you are not always sure whether it’s the character or the author through the character who is talking to you. But when early in the book Mark writes something like “Harry would not have used this word but this is how he felt.” I thought, thank you Mark. After reading several works that were just in first person, it was a relief to hear the authorial voice. But Harry himself has several voices. There is the good Harry who tries to reform, the bad Harry who thinks only of himself, the Harry who is the most incredible fuck-up and also the despicable Harry who is the betrayer of his wife. But throughout the book Harry is juggling all these different aspects of himself and trying not to drop the balls but pull them altogether into one good, coherent person who is capable of being happy. It makes the title “Harry, Revised” seem very apt and it’s why I liked the deeply flawed Harry in the end. But it did take me the process of the whole novel to like him which was an interesting reading experience in itself.
Jason Rice: I think you touch on a good point Jason, in that Harry is not at all likable, (do characters in a novel need to be liked? I don’t think so) what he does is nasty and self-serving, a trait most sincerely alive in today’s culture, and sadly prevalent with almost everyone I know. Which is not to say I know a world of Harry’s. But I do know that everyone, (not you guys) seems to be looking out for number one and by any means necessary and they will acquire their wants no matter what. Harry wants something and he’s damn sure going to get it. Lucille is a way to what he wants, but he lies and says he’s giving something back, Sarvas deceives everyone but the reader with this line of “bs”. Anne is a foil to Harry, she’s kryptonite to his foolish libidinous phony powers. He whores around because she used him to get back at her parents, and he knows he’s nothing more than a parlor trick. Now he’s done the ultimate reversal and allowed his predilections to go public which drives Anne into the arms of a plastic surgeon. Remember — the man who hates others with ferocious glee hates himself most. Sarvas delivers these symptoms with a deep respect for the outcome of each action, as if he knew ahead of time what the reaction would be. I found Harry and his taste for literature a little trite at first, since The Count of Monte Cristo holds such concrete imagery for most people, and Sarvas got away with it, by winding Harry up with this complicated reference and always trying to do as the Count would do. I think if you take that out of the story it still has legs. The writing is pure and clean and the path to a happy ending (seemingly a path) is clear to everyone except Harry when he finally does arrive. I wonder what you both think about The Count of Monte Cristo effect of the novel, and I’ve actually read Stephen Fry’s novel Revenge where he basically re-wrote that story as his own. I’m also curious Dennis, if you think the characterizations of the Anne and her family is good enough to have gone on longer? Sarvas delivers a beautifully embarrassing scene with her wealthy parents which must come from a long history or knowledge of that world, he writes it too well, especially Anne’s father and Harry exchanging trapped animal glances over the cracking fireplace flames. These parts show Anne as a horribly banal white on white person that she is. Beauty is only skin deep, and she thinks that remaking her own skin will save her. I know you liked Lucille, and I hoped we’d see more, but like Dana Spiotta’s Eat The Document, this book could have gone on for many more pages. Sarvas and Spiotta drive the same model sports car, fast and loose over rough road, but somehow manage to tell us only what we need to know, sometimes with uncanny minimalist detail.
Jason Chambers: No, Jason, you need not necessarily like characters in a novel, but you do need to empathize with them at some level, and that is the line Sarvas treads carefully in this book. I must admit that I disagree with you about Anne. Yes, she is a foil to Harry, but not in the way you think. Her character is predicated on her battle between self-realization and her connection to her emotions, whereas his is based upon the crevasse between the two. Anne is self-contained and certain except for the two scenes where she lets her emotions control her behavior in the Harvard Med School chapter where a longstanding parent-sibling fight gets the better of her and the final fight/plastic surgery scene when, distraught, she abandons her established mien and takes drastic action to try to win Harry back. In contrast, Harry is unaware of his own motives and desires until he makes a connection to his emotions — something he has not had since the Harvard incident. Anne is not banal, just weak, and I think that the expansion of these chapters would certainly be possible, and I’m sure Sarvas has mounds of material for it, but I don’t think expansion would have added much if anything to the novel. Rather, it would have shifted the balance of the novel toward the East Coast past and the relationships that entailed, rather than building toward the present day and Harry’s epiphany. I do think the novel would have held up without The Count of Monte Cristo bit, but what crutch would Harry have used to build his confidence and make decisions without it? The story would hold up but Harry needed some external force to drive him forward, and that would still have to be accounted for, whether it was religion, a book, another character, etc. In contrast to your mention of the triangles, Dennis, I think the male-female relationships bear mention. Every one is dysfunctional at some level, and the parties have simply accepted the fact of it. Harry-Anne parallels the In-Laws, but Anne can never be the ball buster her Mother is, Lucille and her son parallel Molly and her boyfriend, where each man/boy dominate and abuse the women. I do think that of the minor characters, Claire is the most interesting. She can identify “bs” from a mile away, and tells the truth, no matter the consequences. Most of the other characters in the book could use a healthy dose of that.
Dennis Haritou: In answer to your question JR, I thought that the characterizations of Anne with her family were very good but I did not want them to be expanded upon. This is an L.A. centered novel and I think it’s stronger that way. The best reason for having that East Coast section in there is that it is the setting, and partly the explanation, for Anne’s white lie about Harry to her parents that Harry overhears. Anne lies to her parents to inflate her husband’s status, implying that she agrees that his ordinary status is not good enough for her family. Talking JR, as you have, about people who are out for number one; it is common enough in social life for people to inflate their own importance, to talk themselves up. And I think that we all hate it when we detect it. But when your wife tries to inflate your status for you without your knowledge, well, that is quite an insult. It was a very telling scene from a marriage for me.
JC, I’ve been following your discussion with JR about Anne and Harry and the other characters. When I participated in that book club, we could have 12 people get together who had read the same book and it could be as if 12 people had read 12 different books. Everyone’s take seemed to be different. I see Harry’s marriage to Anne as a success. Here are two flawed characters who are both trying to stumble their way through their hopes and phobias. And I think Sarvas has balanced the faults evenly on both sides of this imperfect marriage. I think that when Harry mourns for his lost wife, one of the best features of the book, his grief is genuine. Of course, he is also mourning for himself because when we lose someone, we also lose ourselves or the person we have been. And Harry has his eyes on the beautiful Molly while he is mourning. I do have a diffe
rent take on Lucille, my favorite minor character. I think that Harry is honestly trying to help Lucille in the end in a kind of triangle relationship with Molly who he is inappropriately trying to win over.
As for The Count of Monte Cristo angle, you know that I love old books. And Harry’s quandary about whether he should read the abridged or unabridged edition of the Dumas novel is basically hilarious for an old bookstore clerk like me. And, have I remembered correctly, it’s also a culinary selection in that mundane diner, is it not? It’s all part of Harry’s quixotic self-help efforts. But, I agree that even without it, the book is easily strong enough.
Jason Rice: JC, you’re right, I do need to feel for the character more, but his deeds were more despicable and less genuine than they could have been, I suppose, or maybe that is genuine? Does he really mourn his dead wife? From what he tells us of her it would seem that if he did he’d be lying. Where was his emotional response? Were these things he did in response to her death or just what he’s always wanted to do and didn’t have the guts to do them before? Really, the “white lie” is nothing more than a bow around an already unwelcome gift that Harry represents to Anne’s family. I usually mistake small scenes that thumbnail a place or setting and in this case her family as too short and in need of longer examination, when in fact it was there to round out Anne. What I did do with Harry is agree with his bad deeds, getting satisfaction, how ever it came his way, and that the emotionally remote behavior was something I directly identified with, as it protects you to act that way, it is especially apparent in the author’s ability to show Harry in a type of fog from the very first chapter where he witnesses the couple across the diner from him and is only broken from his daydreaming when a “type” of female vision appears in his path that he immediately magnetizes to as a lifeline. I think we’ve interpreted this novel in different ways, like my father reminds me, sometimes postmodern fiction excises real emotion like a surgeon, in this case he’s right, Harry has removed his emotions and injected pleasure on a fair weather basis.
I’m glad we had the time to talk about this book. It is an important novel from a rising talent who most likely will spread his wings in the future.