‘He feels estranged, floating freely.…Like his friend Edmond Dantès.’ –Mark Sarvas, ‘Harry, Revised’

Then she steps out into the night, and a moment later he hears her drive off. He settles into his living room chair, the one with the best view of the hills, from which the fog has all but disappeared. He feels estranged, floating freely as if somehow unanchored, cut loose from his pier, truly a permanent exile, a wanderer, whatever his phone number. Like his friend Edmond Dantès.

—Mark Sarvas, Harry, Revised, Chapter 16

Edmond Dantès, a k a the Count of Monte Cristo of the eponymous Alexandre Dumas novel, is the role model of Harry Rent, the hero of Sarvas’s novel. Harry tries to manipulate his entourage in the manner of Dumas’s hero, but it’s not clear to me how deeply Harry takes his lessons to heart: after all, The Count of Monte Cristo has no friends, not even a middle-aged radiologist living in 21st-century Los Angeles like Harry Rent.

At least the reader can entertain the possibility (or for more optimistic readers, the hope) that Harry Rent has friends. Another Los Angeles resident, the homonymously named detective Harry Bosch of Michael Connolly’s crime novels, quite certainly has no friends at all.

For this reader, Harry Rent’s ambivalence about friendship and manipulation is a welcome change from both the hard-boiled heroes exemplified today by Connolly and the affectless characters I’ve seen most recently in Jon Raymond’s Livability. Harry’s brisk and buzzing interior monologue alternates between forced loneliness and bemusing companionship, and it is the traverse between these two characteristics is the story of the book, as I see it. That, plus Harry’s search for self-knowledge, so that the question of whether Harry has any friends remains open at both ends—both for old Harry and for new Harry.

Somewhere in the 11th chapter of Harry, Revised comes the gradual recognition that Harry has achieved a certain perspective on the human condition. In this quote, he is retelling his life story to one Molly, a waitress at the diner Harry frequents.

As he tells the story, he’s aware of his redactions, the shifts of emphasis, the resemblance to the facts—truth’s doppelgänger. But it’s close enough to how it was that it allows Harry to feel honest, to convince himself of his sincerity, even as it spares Molly (and himself) the least flattering details. And as he speaks, he can’t help but register a sad truth he’s avoided—that he never gave his wife the opportunity that Molly is giving him now; surely Anna must have felt much the same under the weight of his transgression as Harry feels now under his. How much, he wonders, did this missed opportunity cost them?


Is his tale to Molly the truth? Is it honest? Well, it’s as close to honesty as Harry has traveled in years, and he marvels at how it feels.

Harry’s urge to set things right, and the author’s deft empathy with his character, opens a window slightly on Harry’s life and therefore on our own lives. I can feel the weight of Harry’s lies, pushing like the butcher’s thumb on the scales of his marriage.

For more details on Harry, Revised, peruse the author’s blog at http://www.marksarvas.com/harry.html

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Jack Vance, ‘To Live Forever’

The protagonist: a serial murderer. The antagonist: a woman seeking to solve the mystery of her own death. Jack Vance through these hoary clichés gives life to a far-future society, where death is the last taboo and immortality is the prize awarded to one of every two thousand citizens. For the other 1,999, the high black car of the Assassins will come at a specified hour to take them away.

 Early in the book, Gavin Waylock, the protagonist, who has been hiding out for the seven years required to prove the death of his earlier identity as one of the immortal Amaranth caste, resolves to climb the slope of society and win again a place in Amaranth. He did it once as a journalist; he can do it again in another discipline.

His efforts to find a place in society are continually foiled by The Jacynth Martin, the woman who sees through his new guise and identifies him as The Grayven Warlock, the notorious Amaranth-caste murderer. Gavin’s original crime and his murder of The Jacynth are only temporary, however: each victim has a spare body ready and therefore suffers only a temporary loss of consciousness.

This could all be safely left on the shelf, unread, as thrills-and-spills literature, except for Vance’s creativity and wry humor in his characterization and exposition. His description of a pantomime performance is breathtakingly beautiful, even as the mime herself is revealed to be a self-indulgent brat, and the concept of the congealed-water sculpture (and the sententious spaceman sculptor character responsible) is the kind of impossible-in-real-life artifact that only literature can supply.

Reading list 001: J. Baumbach, “You, or the Invention of Memory”

“What if I said that I did know you once, awhile back, if I did say as much, would you let me leave?”

In swift, spare strokes, in plain, unadorned language, Jonathan
Baumbach disassembles the romantic-spiritual complex that undergirds
our consumer society. One pairing—one man, one woman—is dissected,
disassembled, integrated, rejiggered, and put back together over and
over again in the course of the novel. The inevitable tragedy is that
even in the welcoming home of the reader’s imagination, the two only
combine at odd and disturbing angles that require an awkward amount of
force at an inconvenient angle to sustain.
The ‘You’ of the catchy title is the unnamed female protagonist, but
the book is more about the predicate, ‘The Invention of Memory.’ It’s
the anti-Valentine. All the clues that in romantic comedies and dime
novels lead to amatory resolution and eternal happiness are aligned in
‘You’ instead with an existential despair. ‘You, or the Invention of
Memory’ starts out traditionally, as the narrator describes his quest
for self-discovery through passionate love (shades of Plato’s
Symposium), but it ends up more cruel and more pitiless than
any love story, in an anonymous stairwell of an anonymous building,
between floors, as Baumbach makes clear that the quest for
self-discovery has gone horribly wrong.
Baumbach’s genius goes beyond poking the ripe balloon of romance. If
commonplace wisdom decrees that a fulfilled romance affirms the
lovers’ identity, both singular and whole, this book describes the
inverse, in which a failed romance has eroded not only their memories
of each other, but their identities as well. These lovers don’t
murmur, “You complete me,” but rather “You’ve erased me.”
Get your own copy; buy one here or here,
or get with ace publicist Lauren Cerand on her New You Project blog.

Lazy afternoon

It wasn’t like swimming through molasses, rather a pleasant diversion
from exertion, like a local anesthetic is a diversion from pain. The
day was sunny and brisk, with the wind out of the north. I just didn’t
go that fast, is all. It was a day for sailing gently along, like the
five parachutists I watched drifting out of the sky, their round wings
rocking them gently to the ground not five hundred meters to my left.
Would they want to proceed any faster? I certainly did not.

 To place the capstone on the lassitudinous afternoon, I finished up
Janwillem van der Wettering’s Tumbleweed one of his better
Grijpstra-and-de-Gier mystery novels. There was a whole cache of such
I found in a spare room last month, and I’ve been reading them
serially, on the theory that if one is mildly amusing, five will
provide days of mild amusement, just the thing I’m longing for. I had
read a bunch back about 10 years ago, borrowed from the Brooklyn
Public Library. I had forgotten that they are crime novels that have
nothing to do with crime. Someone is killed brutally, then Grijpstra
and de Gier and their boss, the commissaris (who is never given a
name), talk to the friends and acquaintances of the victim and
eventually come up with a criminal, who in all books of the series is
uniformly urbane and sympathetic. Guilt is assigned, but it’s all so
existential! The crime just happened, just like the cops were there to
solve it, just like the parachutists fell out of the sky.