I HEARD MARK SARVAS READ from Memento Park nearly four years ago, and I recall the excerpt involved the protagonist Matt Santos’s complicated feelings about his father, Gabor. Mark had captured a universal human emotion in his prose. All these years later, exactly 4,149 days since the release of his debut novel, Harry Revised, it seems I got it right; Memento Park is a steady drumbeat of deep human emotion. While the novel is technically sound, it excels as a character study. I had the pleasure of sitting with Mark just days before Memento Park’s splashy debut at Diesel Bookstore. We had a damn good time unpacking the ideas behind his touching novel.
ANDRE HARDY: I calculated the release date of March 13 will make it 4,149 days since Harry Revised was published. What took the baby so long to be born?
MARK SARVAS: First of all, the writing process is long to begin with. This particular journey was interrupted by the birth of my daughter, the death of my father, divorce — there was a fair amount of chaos. Then, beyond that, this was more ambitious than my first book. With Harry Revised, admittedly, I was in a rush. Now when I look back, I often wish I’d taken a little more care. With Memento Park, it was important to tell the story right.
Would you say that Matt and Harry, the protagonist of your first novel, are brothers, cousins, bros, or have absolutely nothing in common?
Gosh, that is so interesting. Until this moment, I’ve never thought about the two books in relation to each other. And your question is forcing me to consider that, to put them on a continuum with each other. They seem very different to me in most meaningful measures. Matt, you know, he’s a little more successful. He’s got his life together, he’s less of a schlemiel than Harry. Harry was a bit of a bumbler. But I think what they share is what I’ll describe as the same engine. Each of us as writers has an engine that motivates us, something that we’re wrestling with. I find in writers that I like a great deal, the same kind of terrain being worked out. I realize for me, and it came to me very starkly, I’m wrestling with levels of shame throughout my work. I think shame is what Harry and Matt share.
Recompense, restitution, or remunerate: which word would you pick to describe Memento Park?
That’s funny! One of the working titles was Restitution. My editor was still lobbying for that title until a fairly late date. But it had already been taken by other books. I preferred Memento Park, but it’s definitely a story of restitution. I think it is asking: What does restitution even mean? How do you measure it? You can restitute in dollars, obviously. The German government has been doing that for decades now. But there is emotional restitution, true? There are these things that complete us, complete our journey, restore something that was lost.
Let’s stay with our theme of “R” words. Could you tell me about the restitution of his religion?
That’s quite too big a subject. [Laughs.]
Duly noted. [Laughs.] I’m mainly considering Matt’s wrestling with the absence of religion in his life. In seeking religion, what was he trying to restore?
Matt becomes aware of this object [painting] that has historical and financial value. As he digs into the painting’s history, he must come to terms with the painting’s religious dimensions. It was a common phenomenon among first-generation, postwar immigrant families that fled Europe, the war, that they were done with religion. They wanted to blend in, not stand out. Some decided to forsake a God that had forsaken them. They had no use for a God that couldn’t save them from camps. My mother’s father, who is the most observant member of our family, was so angry after the war that he stopped his religious practice completely. So, part of what the novel is tracking is my own journey. I was raised a secular Jew. I mean, we had Christmas trees. I didn’t have any real religious education, of any kind. I would notice stirrings of resentment, as if something had been denied, whenever I have been in a synagogue. I don’t understand Hebrew, I don’t know the prayers, but I felt a sense of belonging. And I kind of felt annoyed, irritated, that I hadn’t had the chance to experience that more fully in my life. The Sabbath alone being one of them, a slice of sanctified time and space for rest and reflection. How beautiful.
Is Matt unreliable, uncertain, or unrealistic? Pick one to describe him.
Hmm? Three most interesting choices. I’m not sure I’ll pick just one. [Laughs.]
It’s an interview. You have to.
Matt, in some ways, is a conventional unreliable narrator. But, only with respect to his own feelings. We can trust Matt’s account of what’s going on. Matt is utterly reliable in that way. We don’t feel like he’s holding back; we feel like he just doesn’t have it figured out yet. Unrealistic, maybe that is the most right. Matt is an actor. His entire existence up to this point had been a performance. And he’s very aware of who’s watching and what the moment calls for. His journey is about authenticity, locating the authentic self. So, unrealistic may be the best of the choices. There is an unrealism about him that one hope recedes and become something else as the novel progresses.
Salman Rushdie called the novel a gripping mystery. Joseph O’Neill called it thrilling. Marisa Silver touched on its historical elements. What exactly is Memento Park?
I don’t care much for labels. I think classifications are for marketing people and bookstores to figure out. I consider my roots and my interests as being literary. I believe in plot. I like a story. I want to keep the readers interest. That being said, I don’t think Memento Park is really a thriller, or mysterious enough to satisfy someone who reads that genre. It’s not a whodunit for sure. Ultimately, I think it’s for readers to decide.
Who is Virgil? Is he more than just a device?
Funny you ask that. My editor and I, the only place where we clashed was around Virgil. She struggled with Virgil. She didn’t quite get why he was there, what I wanted him for, and why there was so much of him. We had gone through two edits, two full passes where she kept trying to scale Virgil back. I kept resisting. Finally, I wrote her an email. I wanted her to understand what I was going for, then, if the conception was totally wrong, she could help me prove it. I told her Matt is an actor. I mean that to the root of his behavior, he is a performer. He does not exist if he doesn’t have an audience. He must have an audience or he can’t play. That’s why Virgil, to me, was essential to the telling of the story.
Matt’s perception of his father, Gabor, appears to be at odds with everyone else’s. What is Matt missing?
The moment that you’re referring to, in which Matt is reading email tributes to his deceased father, and they’re describing him in such glowing terms, that’s taken directly from my life. I had that same moment reading my father’s emails after he died. I remember thinking, who’s that guy? It caused me to wonder which self is the truer self. Whose version of my father is more authentic? This is a key question in my third novel that I’m writing right now. Where is the self? What does the self consist of?
Matt would make an interesting subject for a psychiatrist who practices regression therapy. There is an incident where his dad spanks him until he wets his pants. Tell me where that came from and how it showed up in his adult life.
Well, there are a number of episodes in this novel that draw from life. The only difference is that I was painting a Star Trek model and not the World War II airplane. But that more or less happened as it was written. This incident in particular was important to show early on because in that moment there was a lot of fear. Earlier we talked about shame being a driver. I think fear, shame, and those kinds of things come to a head in that moment when Gabor beats Matt for spilling paint on the rug.
Would you say that Matt is lonely?
I think of Matt as isolated rather than lonely. There is a self-sufficiency that you see in Matt. He’s got a career as a working actor by the time he’s 19. The lesson he’s taken away from his family is how to fend for himself. It’s the classic immigrant work ethic that I was exposed too — that push, push, push mentality. I think that Matt felt isolated, but he was able to take away what he needed to get him out and on to the next step of individual journey to California.
So you don’t think this qualifies as lonely?
I’ll say that Matt was a little too cut off from himself to even experience emotion. He is a walking case study of fake it till you make it. I’m going to have the beautiful model girlfriend, the successful acting career, all these things that make my life look solid and therefore I am solid. His only concern was what’s the next step in my journey, where’s the next place I have to go, what’s the next thing that I have to do.
I’ve heard it said that there are really only two emotions, love and fear. If this is true, what is the genesis of Matt’s anger: fear or love?
Oh, it’s fear, surely.
What is he afraid of?
Himself. The truth. Answers. History. All of the above. I’ll pivot it back to my personal working through with this novel. I came to understand how little I had asked my parents about their childhood, about their early lives in Europe during the war. I came to realize that there was a lot of youthful narcissism, self-involvement, self-absorption. My head was too far up my own ass to care about this history or to inquire after their stories. And then, suddenly, it becomes too late to ask those questions. My father died in 2009. My mother tried to talk about her wartime experiences a few times. She literally couldn’t finish a sentence for the grief and the tears. And that freaked me out. We view our parents as these pillars and paragons who can make the world right for us. Even as flawed as my father was, he was dad. And dad set shit right. And I could trust in that. To suddenly realize, hey, wait a minute, dad is human, that can be a terrifying shift of the ground beneath your feet.
There is a scene where Matt is in the temple experiencing the singing, having an incredible moment, until he thinks about his parents. Then, all of sudden he’s pissed. What is he mad about?
He’s mad that he’s been denied his heritage. His stolen heritage, if you will. He’s angry about all that was kept from him. Even while experiencing something profound, he knows it’s just lapping at the surface. And he’s furious in the moment. I don’t believe in God. I’m an atheist. I have all of the predictable resistance to faith and religion. Yet, simultaneously I’m still aware of a deep thread that runs through the history of humankind. There is an abiding need to be a part of something bigger.
Could you talk about the craft decision to start the book at the end then work backward in time?
I was heavily influenced by two books. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is one of them. I love the way he handles time. He created a seamless ship through the present narrator, diving to flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, and I never got lost. I marveled at how he accomplished that. More directly, I was influenced by John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidence. I joke that Memento Park is my Banville rip-off. [Laughs.] Perhaps it’s better to call it an homage. He’s so much in my veins that when I started writing Memento Park, it wasn’t a conscious thing, but I knew that structure fit the story I wanted to tell.
Is Matt attracted to Rachel, or the idea of Rachel?
Great question. And I’m going to say he is both attracted to her and the idea of her. Rachel is certainly physically attractive, but, remember, Matt shares his bed with a model. What he sees in Rachel, she represents that path of Jewish education, the culture, that long, long history that she embodies. And, let’s face it, Matt is a little rootless.
Does he know it?
I think he senses it. That’s part of why he’s so agitated. Rachel has history, a place in a culture with a long history. Remembering the moment with the Mezuzah, it’s not her that he becomes obsessed with, it is what she experiences in the moment that he wants to feel.
I thought that moment was so well done, by the way.
The first time Matt experiences an honest emotion is just before getting his ass kicked by a couple of goons. He describes it as feeling electrified. Why does he need pain in order to feel?
I think it’s critical to write as if you were in it, as if you’re feeling it. When I imagined what it would feel like to get my ass kicked, I literally experienced an electric jolt. Here’s why: I think there’s a moment when you recognize the chickens have come home to roost. A recognition that you can’t skate through it anymore. There is no more evading. It doesn’t always mean it’s pleasant, but this is what sets us free. And so, I remember writing and feeling a transference. Matt was finally letting go, and it felt electrifying.