Monday, April 13, 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

This novel hit so big that even some of my undergraduates--who surely have no time for pleasure reading--were going around talking about it. I can see why it was popular--driving plot paired with so many hooks--mute child protagonist, dog breeding farm setting, Hamlet rewrite--that the media coverage wrote itself. And it's good, way better than the typical best seller. Personally I responded most to the dog farm--it's a good example of creating a world that the average reader doesn't know and teaching them how it works. But I suppose the Hamlet layer is what interested all those book clubs and high schoolers. Shakespeare makes for good cannibalizing because he has such layered plots that they can be novels and the characters have such dominant traits that you can turn anyone into a Hamlet or a Kate or a Lear. E.g. being a prince is irrelevant, it's being indecisive that matters, hence you can give a mute kid indecisiveness and call him a Hamlet.

What I noticed as I read this novel was how dependent my acceptance of the plot was on the pre-existence of the play. The character actions--murder! revenge!--are only believable because they were the actions of Claudius, Hamlet, Laertes...they aren't believable as the actions of Claude, Edgar, Glen... In other words, if I read this novel without having any knowledge of Shakespeare I would seriously question the character motivations. But because Wroblewski chose Hamlet (assigned in almost every high school and part of the cultural collective conscious and likely to be known by those who will pick up a 500 page literary novel anyway), he doesn't have to sweat it. If you model your novel on some unknown text, your novel must stand alone. But if you model your novel on Hamlet, you are choosing not to have it stand alone. I guess it really shouldn't stand alone--or why else is Hamlet in there? Still the character thing troubled me ...

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