September 25, 2008

The Paragon of Animals

Months ago someone at work loaned me an advance copy of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Although it took me awhile to plow through it, upon finishing it I immediately considered it one of the best books I've ever read. For weeks I've been recommending it to customers at the store, and I've been pretending to forget to return it to the loaner so I can reread passages.  David Wroblewski, writing his first book (which he took over a decade to complete), has somehow managed to craft a tale that is both an a original novel and a literary homage. It's sprawling, immensely imaginative, suspenseful, heartfelt, and it feels like a novel that will one day be an American classic.  

The story centers around its titular character, a young mute boy who lives on the Sawtelle farm in northern Wisconsin. The Sawtelles take pride in training their own fictional breed of dog whose characterization is as import to the novel as that of the humans involved.  Being inarticulate in voice, Edgar has an uncanny ability to communicate visually with the dogs, and his adept perception helps him to see the world in a different light. The story springs into action when Edgar's father dies and his uncle Claude assumes his paternal and marital roles, Edgar is thrown into a resentful frenzy. When he tries to prove that Claude was behind his father's death, things go horribly wrong and Edgar is forced to flee the family farm along with three Sawtelle dogs, and they live on the lamb until eventually, something calls Edgar back home.  The story is artfully composed throughout, and while some may find the long descriptive passages a bit taxing, the plot is well paced and the world of the novel thoroughly explored.  I had a lot of trouble putting it down.  

It's fun to get in on the ground floor of something. I like being the first, among others, to enjoy a book (or movie, TV show, or play), knowing that eventually it will be hugely popular and people will come running to me and say, "You have to read this, it's incredible, I just finished it," and I'll respond "That old thing? Yeah, I read that months ago. I know it's great. Now get out of my face, latecomer!" After finishing Edgar Sawtelle, I knew I just had to wait for its popularity to increase, either organically by word of mouth and critical praise, or perhaps by a gentle media buzz, and I would soon be presented with many opportunities to look really cool.

So now it's possible that readers of substance will roll their eyes at the title, and all its credibility will diminish. I'll be resigned to discussing major plot points with nannies and rehashing themes with lonely middle-aged women. In fact, any conversation of the book will probably lead to the swapping of stories about how The Secret changes your life. Argh! Curse you Oprah!

It's not that I no longer consider it elite fiction. In the past, Oprah has selected high literature for her book club on several occasions, including classical works by Steinbeck, Morrison, and Tolstoy, and she has also chosen great contemporary works like Middlesex and The Road. It's just that she also has a tendency to recommend a lot of gushy, maudlin prose which is the stuff her viewers generally love and flock towards. So if your book is being plugged by the queen of sentimentality, it's possible it won't be taken too seriously in other circles. Of course, if you're a writer, you don't care about that because that little O sticker in the corner makes you like a gagillion dollars. 

At first I thought, this novel is probably safe because it's over 700 pages long and at nearly every turn it intentionally mirrors the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet. The language is thick and the book begins with an epigraph from Darwin's The Origin of Species. It's just too well written to be trivialized. But then I realized I was ignoring the basic facets of the story.  It's about a MUTE BOY. And DOGS. And a BROKEN FAMILY. There are times when YOU CRY. Shit, it is an Oprah book. 

And what the hell does it matter if it parallels Hamlet? So does The Lion King. Dammit, dammit, dammit.

Folks, you're just gonna have to trust me. Read this book. Oprah's not telling you, I'm telling you. If you're a dog lover, you will enjoy this book. If you love Hamlet, you will enjoy this book. Even if you don't know, or care to know Hamlet, you'll still find this book endearing and profound. Stephen King loved this book. Actually, a lot of the Oprah ladies have come into the store already (they walk in at 5:15) to check it out, but many of them hand it right back to me, citing that it's, you know, too big and stuff. Plus there's nothing on the cover that implies if they read it their lives will take new direction. 

If you buy only one book this holiday season, which is reasonable, considering you're wallet is pretty busy bailing out insurance companies, treat yourself to The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

1 comment:

Scott said...

Heh heh..."titular".