Written by ina on Tuesday, 20 of January , 2009 at 2:14 am
Tags: characters, Edgar, hamlet, novel, Sawtelle
While many mediocre stories have used the crutch of recycling a famous plot, I honestly believe the forced adaption of Hamlet was the greatest tragedy in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. [Then again, I read it in part because it’s a Hamlet-derivative (and fiction of that nature is a requisite on my reading list), and in part because it’s a top 10 New York Times Bestseller. Though it butchered the story, I suppose the forced adaption helped marketing.]
Until Part III, the story was largely extremely pastoral–which could be insanely boring to some, but then, that was the nature and substance of the story–the “personality” of the story, so to speak, was slow and lumbering and went about (in horrid depths) pretty much everything about Edgar and Trudy. I think I might have been content reading a long drawn-out “slice of life” novel that just went about the everyday more-or-less eventless (other than farm stuffs) lives of these people and their amazing (but fictional) dogs — dogs smart enough to read sign language. I truly grew to love these characters, although the novel dragged on, and unlike other novels, I never shed a tear for any of them (even when pretty much everyone dies in the end–it’s a Hamlet-wannabe, you expected that!). The sudden change in Part III with the forced “inciting incident” of Edgar (Hamlet) discovering the death of his father being foul play — a needle, as delivered by his Uncle Claude — left a bad taste in my mouth, and after that, my goal was just to finish the novel to find out what the hype is about and to experience the whole thing to formulate my version of what’s wrong with the novel.
Suffice it to say, the novel’s popularity has probably less to do with the writing and more to do with its subject and its rather unique setting–the hundred acre woods, the farm of the Sawtelles and their very specially-bred dogs, and the remarkable boy who can’t speak (but can hear) but manages to communicate and bond with these dogs — and the reader — on a decently deep level. (Again, it’s not a profound level in that I didn’t cry in his demise–or that of any character’s. Edgar had “bartered with his own life” to be with the people he loved–and I was like, “Oh, well, that seems like something a confused teenager might conclude at.” I didn’t cry. And I’m horribly sentimental. So, the novel didn’t quite pass in the emotional dept.)
There are scenes in the first part of the novel that are memorable because of their clearly supernatural aura; it’s a realistic setting thus far, and yet you have characters who seem not just creepy but of-an-inhuman-wisdom like Ida Paine. And there’s the eerie symbolism like the appearance and death of the wolf pup, buried next to Trudy’s stillborn. And though it’s a farm, little is mentioned of the death of the dogs on the farm, and yet death is nearby. The portrayal of Trudy’s wish for a child is made even more poignant with the scene with that trail of blood from the bedroom to the bathroom, where she and her stillborn sat in the tub soaked in blood–it could have been taken from a horror story, and yet you can see it from her perspective and also the human beauty in the tragic scene. And Edgar’s birth, her distress at the docs not finding anything wrong with him, and yet Edgar being unable to speak though he had all the physical wirings for it. You can sympathize with the characters, and though nothing really happens to them until the last third of the book, you’re kind of happy just reading about them.
The novel’s portrayal of the perspective of the dogs is poetic and nearly brilliant. Almondine’s view progresses from that of a naive dog to that of a truly poetic being in her finale. She has a tendency to try speaking to inanimate objects; before Edgar’s arrival, she’d tried asking these objects for the secret they seemed to know - and which is revealed to her on Edgar’s arrival; and in her finale, knowing Edgar had gone, she’d tried speaking to the angry “traveller” (car).
The novel has these uncanny sparks of symmetry: the two graves that preceded Edgar’s birth and the two graves that preceded his death ; cars as being vessels leading to trouble in Claude’s driving lesson and then Henry’s drive to town ; Essay’s reluctance to be cowed by danger in both the tornado and fire scene, but only relents when she realizes in the latter, it’s Edgar’s choice.
(The POV of each Hamlet-canonical analogue is also interesting. Possibly helpful in studies of those characters (especially for theatre) as a different and specific modern-ish persona to explore each character analogue. Especially the likelihood of Hamlet being a delusional teenager who’s talented in expressing himself in words, and yet can’t quite communicate his inner depth to the people closest to him. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark = The Tale of Edgar Sawtelle Analogies: Almondine = Ophelia ; Trudy = Gertrude ; Claude = Claudius; Dr P = Polonius ; Glenn = Laertes ; “Call of the Wild [what reclaims the dogs, or the Sawtelle Legacy] = Norway; “Sawtelle Farm” = Denmark; Starchild Colony = England ; Forte = Fortinbras; Essay = Horatio ; Tinder & Baboo = Rosencrantz & Guildenstern [?])
I guess the novel regains its own “self” (somewhat?) in the end, when the Sawtelle dogs run free after Edgar’s passing. That they were tied to Edgar, that Forte represented the wild, and Essay, the link.
But, the novel isn’t poetic enough to pass as a poetry novel, and parts of it (the parts that dragged, the parts that seemed jarringly non sequitur — as if another writer had taken on the job without reading the beginning) just screams out, “I NEED TO BE EDITED (and swiped and torn apart)”–so ultimately, the reading itself was a tragedy. I’m sorry. But, at least the dogs are out and free - and we’ll always love the dogs.