It is nearly impossible, I think, to read a novel written by a critic (or someone who thinks of himself as a critic) without a pervasive whisper of schadenfreude brushing each page as you turn it. If that is your kind of thing, read this book. However, be forewarned that the only antidote to schadenfreude—pure annoyance—is also in abundance; excluding a few moments of eye-rolling disdain, your experience will mostly be one of indifferent irritation. It is difficult to maintain the posture required to watch someone fall on his face when you're also trying to elude his cloying grasp.
Mark Sarvas, the author, is the blogger behind The Elegant Variation, a sort of pep band for white male authors who are fairly well taken care of by their publishing houses' publicity departments, but who could use an extra oomph to breakthrough to better sales. If you'd like a roster of the writers Sarvas has trumpeted, check the back cover of Harry, Revised. While "blurb" has always been a synonym for "incest," the novelists who provided jacket copy (Banville, Ferris, Lipsyte, Leavitt, Greer) write about Harry, Revised so blandly, I'm not even sure they read it before filling in the blanks of the "Nice Things to Say about Your Friend's First Novel" template.
One thing you know about a novel by looking at the blurbs—if they read like boilerplate (full of the usual suspects—"compelling," "readable," some variation of "funny yet tender ," "heartfelt," "rare," "moving," "erudite," "Waugh" if there is snark in it, "Roth" if there is sex in it or a man who thinks a lot about it), then the novel itself isn't going to be very original.
And it's not. Although it is unoriginal in the most aggravating way possible—rather than shamefacedly cribbing from other, better books, or being ignorant of other writers who have tread the same path well into the ground, Sarvas seems to think that he's doing the exact same things as the writers he admires, only he's doing them better. It's like he heard about Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence thesis but missed the part about willful misreading. It's just willful reading for Sarvas, although not in a charming way.
Also irritating is the way Sarvas seems to think he has to hide his intelligence as an author by causing his character, Harry, to forget literary references. E.g. Harry is obsessed with The Count of Monte Cristo, but pauses when in the midst of a rapture to try to recall the name of Dantes's love, Mercedes. He says, "He will be the Count of Monte Cristo to Molly's... and now he falters. What was her name in the book? Some kind of car."
Note to Mr. Sarvas: do you think this is coy? If Harry remembers it's the name of a type of car, what besides Mercedes could it be? Acura? Nissan? Ford? Volkswagen? Toyota 4-Runner? I simply fail to comprehend how Sarvas thinks that serial references to The Count of Monte Cristo equals a display of erudition fearsome enough to the reader that he has to pad them with diversionary memory lapses on the part of his character. And he fares no better when he tries to show how academically hip he is, titling his hot young thing (Molly)'s masters thesis in postcolonial studies "Patriarchal Modes in Contemporary Fiction: Just Who the Fuck Is the White Man to Decide What Passes for 'Literary'?" He might as well have called it "Embarrassingly Stilted Attempts at Parody and Their Use in Pseudo-Intellectual Discourse." (Also, didn't he get the memo that coloned titles are on their way out? Oops--I say too much. Maybe that one hasn't made it out west yet.)
Sarvas seems to believe in his own intellectualism. Fine. Over-intellectualization is the complement, not the antithesis of ignorance. We cannot seriously expect that all debut novelists who try to be intellectual in their writing will succeed in stimulating their readers intellectually, but there are other gifts a writer may possess which make up for them, like an adept and tuneful ear for language. Unfortunately, Mr. Sarvas's ear is made of tin or even some bastardized and ill-blended alloy. Trying to mix registers, he produces only dissonance; trying to write fleetly, he produces a flat breeze bearing nothing. Even the metaphors he creates sound pedestrian, lacking the challenge and the charge of poetic language. Sarvas is a writer without an idiom—he employs a grab-bag of descriptive shortcuts, stock dialogue fillers, and verbal contrivances, half-stabs at elevated diction and quasi-gestures at a nebulous demotic.
But Sarvas's mediocre and uneven prose (which should be a paradox) only rarely rises to the point at which it grates on the aesthetic nerves; more exasperating is the way Sarvas starts characterizing things by simply labeling them from the get-go; within the first few pages we have Harry doing something "in true Harry-style" and drifting off into "Harry-land." These aren't realities to us yet—we don't know Harry. It's as if the author has become a narcissist on his character's behalf.
Unfortunately for us, this narcissism has as its object an incomparably dull man; Harry's fantasies, among other things, somehow manage to sink below the most banal midlife-crisis dreck you can imagine. Think of American Beauty written by Ayn Rand—that's about the size of it.
Why did I read this book, you may be asking? It's not because I like reading bad books, or because I relish schadenfreude that much or even because I like writing mean reviews. As one of the most prominent lit-bloggers around, Sarvas's foray into fiction represents a first look into the application of that peculiar ethos of resentful/prideful, militantly-digital-yet-begging-for-print-approval quasi-outsiderness that characterizes the top lit-blogs. To a certain extent, the bloggers' boast that there is great talent outside the publishing/critical "system" which can now be uncovered by independent-yet-connected bloggers who will bring back the passion, freshness and originality to American fiction—all this is what Sarvas's novel should have proven.
But he failed. I think he fails as a blogger-critic—he's not really finding talent outside the 'system,' so what's the point?*—and he's failed as a novelist—his book doesn't offer a hint of any new pockets of freshness or vitality in American letters.
*What's my point in blogging, then, you ask? I need practice writing; the half-published status of a little-read blog provides a modicum of discipline to keep things somewhat structured, somewhat proofed, and somewhat aware of an audience. If you're reading, that's your loss.