Less than hero

Mark Sarvas sends a feckless protagonist bumbling through L.A.

 SHEER SADNESS Sarvas imagines a widower who is redeemed by his ridiculousness.

SHEER SADNESS Sarvas imagines a widower who is redeemed by his ridiculousness. Photograph: Sara Corwin

In late 2003, Mark Sarvas, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, set out to write his first novel. At almost the same time, he embarked on the parallel endeavor of starting a literary blog. Since then, The Elegant Variation has landed on a number of best-blogs lists, giving its creator a high profile in the online world (no small feat, as its focus is books). And now, some four and a half years later, he’s migrating from the blogosphere to the bookstore with the arrival of his debut novel, Harry, Revised.

“I began them weirdly concurrently, but they were not connected in my mind,” Sarvas, 43, said over the phone from his L.A. home. The success of his blog, he insists, is in large part a matter of having been in the right place at the right time. “When I started The Elegant Variation there were about a dozen literary blogs in existence. Now there are thousands. If I were to start a blog at this point, doing everything exactly as I do it today, no one would notice.”

Either way, the question now is: Will Sarvas’s online fans seek out his fiction? Those who have been reading The Elegant Variation over the years may be surprised, he says, to find that Harry, Revised bares little resemblance to the “hermetically literary, very dark, not immediately accessible” style of writing that characterizes many of the authors, such as J.M. Coetzee and John Banville, that he’s promoted on his site.

His novel is instead a straightforward yet humorously observed chronicle of middle-aged nebbish Harry Rent, a slovenly neurotic who comes undone after his wife, Anna, dies during a botched boob job. Having fallen well short of being an ideal husband, Harry is plagued by feelings of inadequacy and shackled with guilt over his escalating prostitute habit. As he attempts to confront his shortcomings—as a former husband and as a current mourner—his mini-odyssey of desperation finds him obsessively courting a waitress at his local diner and refashioning himself after his literary hero, the Count of Monte Cristo.

A longtime fan of that particular French novel, Sarvas determined that it was a perfect model for his contemporary tale of reinvention. His aim, he says, was to create an old-fashioned novel with a modern sensibility grafted on it, what he calls “the bastard love child of Zadie Smith and Alexandre Dumas.”

And this is why fans of The Elegant Variation—and others—should read Sarvas’s book. The disjuncture between the author’s nods to Dumas—in particular his use of chapter headings in the style of 19th-century adventure novels—and Harry’s feckless stumbling around Los Angeles in search of greater meaning produces a deeply felt and often hilarious book of mock heroics. Harry’s the type who contemplates hanging fake degrees in his office, gets his tie stuck under his wife’s casket lid and is urinated on after being mistaken for a Peeping Tom. He may be a grown man, but he’s only just now coming of age—awkwardly. When the waitress who arouses his affection tells him, “I go back and forth between liking you and being creeped out by you,” it’s a perfect reflection of Harry’s tendency to endear himself, even in his constant mishaps.

“There are people that are not quite ready to step out into the world,” Sarvas says of Harry. “He’s like one of those insects skittering across the surface of the lake. The goal is for him to go spelunking into the deeper emotions in life.”

This being a novel set in Los Angeles, the road to enlightenment is inevitably lined with elements of near self-parody. Although he insists he never set out to write satire, Sarvas does capture a varied collection of absurd details about 21st-century life (one particularly memorable scene tackles the sublime ridiculousness of a Spinning studio). “When you live in L.A., targets for satire are pretty thick on the ground,” he acknowledges.

But Harry’s tribulations also point toward themes that are deeply serious. After learning that an acquaintance had died during plastic surgery, Sarvas focused on capturing what her husband might have felt in the aftermath. It was by imagining this predicament that Sarvas began to discover Harry’s voice, and eventually what emerged was a character who, for all his boorish faults, is deeply recognizable. “I don’t care if you like him, but I want you to find him sympathetic, and I want you to be rooting for him to get it right,” Sarvas says. “By the end, he does get it right.”

Harry, Revised (Bloomsbury, $24.99) is out now. Sarvas reads May 14, 2008.