It is a typical Harry Rent moment. The protagonist of Mark Sarvas‘s well crafted novel Harry Revised is trapped – almost Bloom like – by indecision, in a bookshop where his task seems relatively simple: to buy the novel that will be his reference book for a much needed re-birth, Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.
Abridged or Unabridged? That is the question
Harry stands in the deserted, brighlty lit Fiction & Literature secion of his favourite chain bookstore, weighing a book in each hand. In his right, The Count of Monte Cristo (Penguin, unabridged) weighing in at a formidable 1,276 pages. In his left, The Count of Monte Cristo (Puffin classics, abridged) tipping the scales at a svelte 396 pages. Harry weighs the pros and cons of each, literally as well as figuratively.
He can’t deny that an irresistible bit of cachet comes with being an unabridged sort of guy. If depth follows effort, as Harry is reasonably convinced that it must, surely his best hope for a Dantés-esque rebirth must be found in these pages.
But Harry also knows himself, knows the limits of his attention span, and fears that The Count of Monte Cristo (Penguin, unabridged) is fated to end up as little more than an impressive desk ornament. And, he reasons, if the story can effectively be whittled down to a mere 396 pages (Puffin Classics, abridged), then how necessary can the rest really be? Harry’s a bit under the gun, eager to move along his grand scheme, and he’s not sure he’s got the time to accomodate what must clearly be nine hundred pages of authorial self-indulgence.
In the end, after a couple of pages of pondering and a humiliating encounter with a snooty sales clerk, Rent leaves the store with both copies.
Harry Revised , on the surface, seems open to an abridged version, its plot being as simple as an average hollywood movie – Harry Rent, middle-aged and recently widowed, struggles to come to terms with grief, and ageing by romancing a “raven-haired and statuesque” waitress called Molly, with hilarious consequences. That, though, does this very funny, and moving novel little justice. This is a great book not just because of the story – though the plot twists and turns bring a smile to the face as Sarvas puts Rent through his paces with affectionate malevolence – but because of the way it’s told.
At the crux of this is the portrayal of Harry himself. He runs the gamut of emotions, sounding notes from the shallow and selfish to the complicated and caring; from the lewd and lustful through to the loving and love-lorn, and as the book progresses, amidst the laughs, he increasingly takes on the fleshed-out countenance of an old and cherished friend (an irony, given that he can count only one true friend in the book, one who announces towards the end “Thing is, thing I ask myself, and don’t take this wrong, is what did our friendship really amount to?”). A bitter-sweet reading experience then, as this is an old friend in a particularly dark moment in his life.
The American dream has always been about re-birth, from the moment the pilgrims set foot on plymouth rock through to Jay Gatsby’s appearance in West Egg, and Harry Rent, recently widowed, is clearly dreaming. Middle aged, prosperous but not super-rich, he confronts his wife’s sudden death (during a cosmetic surgery operation) as a new start, as a moment for redefining himself; and therin lies his tragi-comic flaw
“What Harry is interested in being, however, presents another variation on the same elusive problem he’s just been wrestling with. Harry finds he’s better at defining his absences – self knowledge through negation or elimination. He thinks that if he could whittle away enough false trails and unpromising detours – 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) – then he could eventually define himself by whatever remains.”