commentary by KEVIN GUILFOILE & JOHN WARNER
John: Mark Sarvas, previously a judge in our tournament, finds himself in familiar territory, but on a different side of the aisle as his first novel Harry, Revised makes its way into the arena, and congratulations to Mark for a fine showing in taking out a #1 seed in the Booker Prize winner The White Tiger.
When I read Mark’s book not long after it came out, I remember being engaged by the story, interested in turning the pages to see what was going to happen next. It’s a tough thing to write and publish a novel, and Mark deserves a lot of credit for achieving the goal so many of us (me included) fall short of.
Mark’s book is engaging, but I was bothered by the very element Judge Lehrer praises in his write-up. Lehrer says he enjoyed the sincerity of Harry’s inner monologue, but the novel is written from a third-person omniscient point-of-view, which means we never actually get Harry’s inner monologue, but instead the monologue of a narrator who has occasional access to Harry’s thoughts. (As well as the thoughts of all the other characters.) That narrator hangs over the entire book in a way that, for me, caused me to ultimately hold Harry, as well as the rest of these characters, at arms’ length. Rather than being absorbed into Harry’s experience, we are asked to observe his actions. We get his thoughts, but sometimes it’s not clear what are Harry’s conscious thoughts versus subconscious attitudes that our omniscient guide knows, but Harry remains ignorant of.
The descriptions of the characters in the book may be pitch-perfect, as Lehrer says, but the key word in his sentence there is descriptions. Because of the distancing effect of the narrative strategy, the people populating Harry, Revised come across as rounded types. They’re not flat, per se, yet they are largely defined by single traits. We may sense that we know people like this, but only because there’s a narrative voice that is mediating the information in such a way to make sure we know that these characters embody these types. In the end, while I enjoyed following Harry’s story, because of that pesky narrator, none of the people in this book got under my skin.
Kevin: Wow. In just the third match, we already have the second upset of the tourney. In the first three rounds the ToB has dismissed the Booker Award winner as well as the PEN/Faulkner recipient. And tomorrow we have a matchup between two of my favorite books in this year’s tourney. It will hurt me no matter which one ends up losing that one. We are shaking things up, brother!
I actually really enjoyed The White Tigerit made me laugh out loud many times and its satire is extremely boldbut Lehrer’s opinion underscores what a high wire act that kind of novel is. White Tiger operates in a kind of heightened reality and the reader is either going to buy in to the outrageousness or he’s not. If the reader rejects it, you are going to lose him early. Everything in the book is going to seem staged and false.
As a result, I’m not shocked that Harry, Revised is going on to the next roundthe pages turn pretty quickly in Sarvas’s novel. I felt the same way you did about the omniscient point of view, however. The narrator knows things the characters don’t and can see into the future. He/she is even judgmental. For instance at one point early on the narrator says something like, Power over women always fascinated Harry, but Harry doesn’t know that about himselfhe doesn’t have that much self-awareness. It’s a piece of information about Harry’s subconscious that helps explain actions that might otherwise seem out of characterwhy he goes to prostitutes for examplebut we’re shown little independent evidence of it.
In my own first novel I had maybe five words buried somewhere in an otherwise perfectly good sentence where I slipped outside the attached voice and gave the reader a piece of information the characters couldn’t have. My editor told me she didn’t like it and my agent told me he didn’t like it but I insisted on keeping it in there and now I regret it.
The omniscient POV is really tough to pull off, especially at novel length. It often pushes you into telling more than showing. Sarvas probably deserves some multiplier for difficulty, but almost inevitably the omniscient narrator starts getting in the way of the charactersyou are constantly being reminded of the guy who made all this up. And when improbable or unexpected stuff happens, as it must in any decent story, it risks coming across as manipulative.
But obviously Lehrer didn’t feel that way. In fact, he saw the symbolic nature of Adiga’s characters as being manipulative when compared to Sarvas’s more realist ones. And that’s why the judges read the books.
The 2009 Tournament of Books has its first Cinderella.
John: I enjoyed The White Tiger as well, enough that I had it on the top quartile of all the books I read for the tournament. All books contain artifice, and while I never quite got beyond that feeling with Harry, Revised, like you, I was won over by Adiga’s creation pretty much from the get go. The narrative goes a little slack in the final third, but by then I was invested enough to care about the world we’ve been invited into. A disappointment for Adiga for sure, going out as a Number 1 seed. For all my qualms over Harry, Revised, it’s actually sort of exciting to see someone who recently was on our side of the glass move on in the tournament. We’ll find out if Sarvas can hold on to the glass slipper in Round 2.