In Harding’s wry debut fiction, Henry Quantum’s major preoccupation is "the avoidance of pain," no doubt part of the reason he dropped out of a philosophy doctoral program to work in an advertising agency.
Perhaps pain avoidance is the reason he clings to his once-passionate 15-year marriage to Margaret even though he often now feels "the dark energy of her contempt." It’s Dec. 23 when Henry remembers he hasn’t purchased a Christmas gift for his wife. He leaves his office seeking Chanel No. 5 perfume. As he walks, Henry encounters Daisy, with whom he once had an affair. Henry’s a perfectly sketched character, his interior monologue—and there’s much of it—at times funny, at times profound. Margaret’s an achiever, but she’s now in the midst of an affair herself, no guilt or introspection evident. She drifted until marriage and then found supersuccess in high-level real estate. Daisy’s a realistic character, married young for security, now sometimes an unfocused ditz, but intelligent and ambitious enough to enroll post-divorce in an advanced neuroscience program. The San Francisco setting is perfectly mapped on the page, detailed from coffee shops to street characters. Covering only one day, the narrative gets rolling with a subtle sendup of Henry’s trendy advertising agency. After that, Henry goes on his perfume-seeking walkabout and ruminates on quantum physics, Heisenberg and mirror images, existentialism, the cosmic void, Zen Buddhism, and the artificiality of hiding behind psycho-buzzwords like guilt, deflection, and projection to analyze rather than resolve emotional conflict. Harding spins his tale in alternating segments from Henry’s, Margaret’s, and Daisy’s points of view, sometimes arch but nearly always empathetic, showing every fondness for his three damaged lovers.
Some may find shades of Walter Mitty in Henry Quantum, but this quirky love story is driven by angst, and heroes imagined or real are absent.