Monday, February 16, 2009

The Long and Tedious Story of Edgar Sawtelle

I won't complain about it being Monday. I think, by now, you've realized that's a given on a Monday morning. Of course, it doesn't help that today is actually a holiday and a lot of people don't have to work. I have to work. Can you feel me trying not to complain?

Still, I did have a rather nice weekend. On Friday, I discovered that I would, indeed, have a job in the future as the buyer of our company wants to keep almost everyone on. I am relieved. I won't lie and say that this is my dream job because my dream job is to write and get paid for it. Yet I like this place. I like my coworkers. My 'new' position is a little different than the one I have now but I think it'll be a good change. After four months of not exactly knowing what my future employment situation will be, it's such a relief that I don't think I've completely absorbed it yet.

Thus, I went into Valentine's Day (or, as some of my slightly more bitter friends call it "Single Awareness Day") with a positive attitude. I had a lovely day, I treated myself to a movie, went grocery shopping and then came home to relax. I chose to watch a perfectly dreadful movie while I was relaxing. Of course, I didn't know it was dreadful though given that it was based on a Nicholas Sparks' novel, i did have my suspicions. It was Nights in Rodanthe. I rented it because I like Richard Gere and usually like Diane Lane. Little did I know that even those two can't save a syrupy plot. Also, if you're familiar with Mr. Sparks' writing, you will know that he likes to make people cry by killing someone. I would like to point out to Mr. Sparks that he's used this technique one too many times by now and I'm onto him. I did not cry, in fact, I was irritated because halfway through the film I thought, "I wonder which one will die." I probably spoiled it for you. I'd say I'm sorry but, honestly, I'm doing you a favour. Really. You want a romantic movie? Watch An Officer and a Gentleman, Love Actually or Casablanca.

I also finished reading a book that I've been trying to finish for three weeks. I usually read books quickly. Not this one. The book is called The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. It was a bestseller, Oprah recommended it and it has a posititively glowing review from Stephen King on the back cover. As you'll probably recall, Mr. King and I have seen eye-to-eye on several books in the past. Unfortunately, not with this one.

Edgar Sawtelle was one of those books I sort of wanted to throw across the room when I was done but, because I was sitting in the bath when I finished it, I didn't bother. Just as a quick plot summary, it's sort of a modern day retelling of Hamlet. Edgar Sawtelle is Hamlet except he was born unable to speak. He communicates with sign language. His family has bred a new species of dog that is super smart and 'chooses' its own path and actions. I think most of the characters from Hamlet are represented by dogs in Edgar Sawtelle. Anyway, basically, Edgar's uncle kills his dad and seduces his mother to take over the family business. Just like in Hamlet.

Edgar runs away but comes back. That's the gist of the plot. If you've read Hamlet, it's not hard to figure out the tragic end of the story.

The problem is with this book it that it doesn't say anywhere that it's based on Hamlet. The only reason I figured it out is because I've read that play and had to analyze it countless times for classes. Thus, it sort of made sense when the story veers briefly into supernatural territory and mystical territory. Yet, it doesn't excuse the ridiculous amount of waffling prose and sheer volume of description. If ever a book was in sore need of an editor, it's this one. I'm not kidding when I say that at least half of the book is lyrical description of Wisconsin in every season or talking about the dogs. Also, it resorts to allowing the dogs' to 'narrate' a part of the story. For me, that's a huge turnoff in a book. Very occasionally, this works. If it's a story solely about a dog, then...maybe. If it's a kid's story then...definitely. But with this one, it was so out of place. But then, since the dogs were Super Intelligent dogs, maybe it made sense.

You may wonder why I kept reading. Mostly because I promised my mother I would. You see, she read it and felt like she 'didn't get it'. She didn't get the Hamlet aspects which is no way her fault. So I said I'd read it. I did. It's just that halfway through, I started feeling like I did when I move apartments. You know the feeling, right? It's like, in the beginning, it seems like a fun idea, you find a new place and you can't wait to move in. Then you realize that you have to pack. In theory, that always seems easy. Then you start doing it. Halfway through the first room, you realize exactly how much work it's going to be and you sort of want to abandon ship and stay where you are but you know it's too late, you've already committed. Yet every box you pack after that realization takes forever and ever and by the time you're done, you're exhausted and you're trying hard not to think about unpacking all those boxes.

Yes, for me, Edgar Sawtelle was like moving house. I thought it'd be a good new book. Then I started reading and the further I got, the harder it seemed to get through but I'd promised to read it and, truth be told, wanted to see what the fuss was about. Now that I'm done, I'm exhausted and feel like it took forever. I will not be rereading it. I think Stephen King said in his glowing review that he was envious of someone who picked this up for the first time because it was such a rewarding read. Also, he would be rereading it. Good for him.

It's books like this that make me wonder if I'm cut out to be an author. These are the books that are getting published, books that are symbolic and full of pages and pages and pages of desciption. I'm not saying Mr. Wroblewski can't write because he can. His descriptions are, at times, beautiful and poignant. Yet there's so much of it that I found my brain wanting to skip huge chunks to get to the story but, honestly, there wasn't much story to get to when you took away the prose. I like to describe things. I know I do that here, in this blog, a little too much probably. It's fun to find new ways to paint the world around us in words. Yet, for me, there has to be a story and it's the story that should fill the pages. The story is the outline and the drawing, the description is the colour. To me, Edgar Sawtelle is more like modern art, big, giant blocks of colour with no distiguishable form. I'm not a fan of modern art. I like my paintings to be of something. To have to try to find the symbolism in splashes of red and black paint is too much work.

I tried to write yesterday and I couldn't. I sat in front of a blank screen and nothing flowed. I'm frightened when that happens because it's so rare. I wonder if maybe I can't write anymore, if it's deserted me. I know part of it is because I'm frustrated about treading water as a writer. I have eight novels and am having no luck with agents. Reading Edgar Sawtelle didn't help because I didn't get it. I can't write like that. If I did, I'd feel like I'd done something empty. I do that a lot with writing. I find myself writing huge pages of description and hating the fact that the story is so weak. Yet if this is the type of book that Stephen King, Oprah Winfrey and countless other critics endorse, maybe I am doing something wrong. After all, it was a best seller.

Yet, then again, so was Breaking Dawn and you know how I feel about that. I suppose I can just hope that I'm ok the way I am and that, one day, I'll have my books out there in the world for some blogger to criticize on the web like I'm doing right now.

I suppose it's all about interpretation and preference. I usually enjoy modern retellings of old stories. I just tend to have them be a little less descriptive I will say, however, that had I stolen the plot of Hamlet like David Wroblewski did in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, you better believe that I'd acknowledge William Shakespeare in my 'thanks' section. Mr. Wroblewski did not.

I know I'm coming across as bitter. I can't lie and say I'm not. Whenever we 'don't get' something, it makes us a little bitter. I think because it also makes us feel a little dumb, that maybe we're not smart enough to understand the full depth of such a deeply moving book. Then I start to get bitter all over again because a book shouldn't be written with such depth that it makes a normal reader feel dumb.

It's a vicious cycle.

Happy Tuesday.

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