Monday, May 21, 2012

Reading: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Okay...haven't posted in a while.

I still owe a boardgaming post.

I still owe part 2 of my zombie series of posts.

I also need to make something of a gaming announcement (not a biggie, just a surprising turn in my gaming of late).

But I'm making a literature post.

I really enjoyed reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. I admittedly was worried when my mother announced that she hated the ending, hated the book, hated the author and would never read another book by him. But I knew it was on the "Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition" reading list. I had also just survived listening to Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It was an okay book but felt like Pride and Prejudice without the wit. I needed something (a) more masculine and (b) more in my "idiom."

So I looked at Edgar Sawtelle. I saw it was based on Hamlet - a point in its favor. I saw it had a boy who couldn't speak - weirdness is always a point for me. I saw it had a ghost - another point! This thing was scoring hits left and right! If it only had dogs...

Dogs and part of the story told from these super-dogs' point of view. Game. Set. Match.

It turned out to be an excellent book, one of the best I've read in a while. It was dark yet touching. And the weird touches, such as an extended discussion of the possibilities of breeding your own breed of dog, were compelling. But what intrigued me most was its connection to Hamlet.

Edgar the younger is Hamlet. Edgar the elder is Hamlet the dead king. Trudi is Gertrude. And Claude is, well, Claudius. But Edgar Sawtelle gives me a handle on a number of characters with whom I have problems. I never fully understand why Gertrude marries Claudius. In the novel, though, it is a long courtship where Claude is not even allowed on the property for a long time (but, as Claude says, one must be willing to wait in order to get what one wants). I see it.

In the play, I always have trouble with Ophelia. She is shockingly weak. She comes onstage and her father and brother bully and berate her about how she's not worthy of Hamlet. She returns so that Hamlet can bully her and tell her to get to a "nunnery." And then her brother leaves, and her father is killed by her love interest and she goes stark, raving (yet there seems to be a method in it) mad and kills herself. Where did this loyalty come from? Why is she so dependent upon these men? She is sadly and unsatisfyingly (for me) weak.

How did Wroblewski handle this in the book? He made her a dog. Got it. I understand completely.

So, for me, most of the loopholes were filled. Wroblewski adds his own, of course, leaving a white patch of ground and a dead puppy unexplained (and how old IS Forte?). But these are minor and, in the world of symbols, acceptable. I can make some sense of them.

But there was one problem for me. In Hamlet, the massive death scene at the end occurs, but each character seems to deserve death, at least arguably. Gertrude pays a price for betraying her husband's memory and marrying his murderer within two months of the funeral. Claudius pays a price for his treacherous nature. Laertes pays a price for his seemingly uncharacteristic treachery, a "woodcock to [his] own springe."

And I also think Hamlet deserves (again, arguably) to die. He dies for his unwillingness to act, for his overthinking things, for commiting to killing Claudius then saying, again and again, "not yet." He also pays for playing a game that he has no business playing. One of the classic sequences in the play is when Claudius realizes what game Hamlet is playing. He looks down at Polonius's dead body and exclaims "It had been so with us, had we been there." Immediately, he shows Hamlet how it's done. Time to act? Okay, Claudius is in. He immediately arranges for Hamlet to be executed by the King of England. When that fails due to strange, pirate-laden circumstances, he arranges the strange duel between Laertes and Hamlet with two failsafes. Hamlet doesn't stand a chance. And he dies because of their respective talents. Hamlet is a thinker, a scholar, not a killer. Claudius on the other hand...

But I'm not sure Edgar and Trudi deserve to die. Trudi is stand-offish with Claude and my impression is that it has been a good deal longer than two months before Claude is allowed on the Sawtelle property. While Gertrude is constantly telling Hamlet to get over it, Trudi is understanding of Edgar's feelings. I sympathize with Trudi. I like Trudi.

I also like Edgar. He is only investigating his father's death. Not to commit himself to commit murder or avenge him as far as we know. We're not sure what he's going to do. He mostly wants to know the truth and to confront Claude about it. Hamlet is exiled. Edgar exiles himself. And Hamlet is a man of thirty. Edgar is still a kid.

I'm unsatisfied with the ending because I can't see it coming. I only see Edgar dying because I know the end of the play. I am something like Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern?) in the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, flipping the coin and knowing it must come up heads again and again. Not because of physics or magic but because that's the way the play (or, in this case, the novel) is written. Edgar Sawtelle pays for Hamlet's shortcomings. I'm not sure that's fair.

And Glenn Papideau (this version's Laertes) pays a severe price for being a buffoon

I love the very end, the end with the dogs (and with the Fortinbras equivalent), but the orgy of death and impairment that comes before is somewhat undeserved. If Edgar pays a price, it is because of his neglect of Almondine, or maybe because he flees at a time when he should have confronted his uncle. But even that case is hard to make. Edgar is a child. He is a character with whom I have spent hundreds of pages. And I'm just not sure he deserved the death he receives.

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