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Is This Book Worth Getting?

A no-frills guide to five just-published first novels.

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Harry, Revised
By Mark Sarvas, Bloomsbury; $24.99
Famous as the lit blogger behind the Elegant Variation, Mark Sarvas has, at 43, published his first novel, the anatomy of the marriage of antihero shlump Harry Rent and Waspily perfect Anna. It is a very L.A. story: Anna dies mid-boob-job, and unmoored Harry parses flashbacks and fixates on wooing a comely waitress, doing favors for her surly middle-aged co-worker and styling himself after the Count of Monte Cristo. Harry makes an endearing nebbish—getting his jelly-stained tie stuck under his wife’s coffin lid—but he’s lugging a burden of shame owing to a Spitzer-scale hooker habit. Though prone to overexposition, Sarvas has a sure hand for vivisecting 21st-century absurdities; his pièce de résistance has Harry tagging along to Anna’s masochistic spin class, complete with European techno, “Excessive Head Motion Lady,” and an instructor with a “mystical presence” and skintight shorts.
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All the Sad Young Literary Men
By Keith Gessen, Viking; $24.95
For about 40 thrilling pages, Gessen delivers one of the purest joys in all of literature: the ecstasy of watching a much-hyped young littérateur fall flat on his face. The book’s opening is self-satisfied, boringly solipsistic, and full of embarrassing pomo moves that Gessen doesn’t have nearly the pizzazz to pull off: gratuitous photos in the middle of the text (Lincoln, Monica Lewinsky), uninventive charts about character behavior, a screen shot of an e-mail in-box. The action follows a trio of Gessen clones—generic twentysomething Harvard-educated intellectuals—brooding vaguely about what to “do” with their “lives.” It’s not so much a novel as an exercise in tone, like a Zach Braff movie for kids who prefer Kierkegaard to the Shins. And yet, as the characters maunder on (to Israel, Syracuse, Brooklyn), Gessen’s charm somehow takes over. His sly, tumbling prose is consistently funny, and in the end he’s scraped up an impressive little heap of truth from severely unpromising ground.
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The White Tiger
By Aravind Adiga, Free Press; $24
This fast-moving novel, set in India, is being sold as a corrective to the glib, dreamy exoticism Western readers often get. (The ad campaign says “No saris. No scents. No spices.”) The underside of the subcontinent turns out to be pretty grim, a place where caste still matters (a lot), servant culture is even more ingrained than it was in The Remains of the Day, and nothing ever gets done until someone hands over a suitcase full of rupees. This is a murder mystery, told backward: The killer’s revealed early, and the rest is why-he-dunit rather than whodunit. But the real point is to show contemporary India, which comes off highly aggressive and grubby, like the nineteenth-century America of Gangs of New York, plus tech-support centers and cell phones. If these are the hands that built India, their grandkids really are going to kick America’s ass.
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The Mayor’s Tongue
By Nathaniel Rich, Riverhead; $24.95
This first novel wears its influences proudly on its heavily embroidered sleeves: Borges, Calvino, Nabokov—the holy trinity of high-concept literary gamesmanship. Unfortunately, Rich’s ambition appears, at times, to outpace his accomplishment. Although the plot (which revolves around a reportedly dead author who turns out to be living in grotesque cultish glory in the mountains of Italy) has moments of sublime invention—our hero is translating, purely via intuition, an unpublished manuscript written in a language he doesn’t understand—mostly the gambit doesn’t pay off. The nested stories tangle; the backstories blur, and the human elements (love, grief) seem contrived. The result is a stunt that’s more often “zany” than profound. Rich’s moxie may lead to better books in the future—but The Mayor’s Tongue feels like an apprenticeship to the masters.
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