Saturday, February 28, 2009
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Minutes ago I finished David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. When I read the last page of a truly great book, I close the cover and then hold it in my arms for a few moments. I trace my hand over the book jacket and down the spine, let myself feel the weight of it, as if the physical presence of the book will prevent it from really being over. It's a reflexive movement, born out of a desire to hold onto the discovery and marvel and utter newness of a first time read, to squeeze out every last ounce of that experience, because no matter how many times you re-read a book (and I re-read books a lot), it will never be quite the same.
If it's a really great book I hold onto it for ever longer. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a really great book. Now I know I'm a little late on the bandwagon. It came out a while ago and it's an Oprah pick after all, which means about a million people have had time to read it by now. But I was busy re-reading the Harry Potter series for a couple of months (I started this latest re-read when I moved away from Charleston, I credit it for keeping me at least relatively stable). But I finally bought this book, and it only took me about thirty pages in to know that it was special. Thirty pages in is when a chapter titled "Almondine" starts. A mute teenager named Edgar Sawtelle is unequivocally the novel's protagonist, but the POV leaves him and switches to other characters several times throughout the novel. The "Almondine" chapter is told from the point of view of one of the Sawtelle family dogs. The Sawtelles own and operate a kennel in rural Wisconsin, so their world is heavily populated by dogs, but Almondine is their dog, the only one who lives in the house and who will never be sold. She grows up with Edgar and she is his. Although that's not entirely true. Again and again we learn that he is hers, her boy. Now a chapter told from a dog's point of view would normally raise alarm bells with me. I would think cutesy or cloying or unrealistic. But the chapters seen through Almondine's eyes are some of the richest in this incredibly layered novel. Wroblewski writes about dogs with tremendous lyricism and love and grace. And he doesn't write down to them. They're not dumb or silly or laughable. They're rendered with enormous respect and understanding. But he also doesn't treat them like humans and Almondine's chapters are not in the voice of a human. But somehow and I don't know how he does it, Wroblewski articulates her thoughts and feelings in a way where you read it and you just go, of course. Like you've known all your life that's how a dog would sound, only you didn't know how to get there on your own. I read the "Almondine" chapter and I knew I was in masterful hands. I was in for a story that was beautifully written, but more importantly I was in for a beautiful, engaging, complex, entertaining story, a book bursting with that hard to define, for lack of a better word, "storyness" that so many authors, even with their elegant words and sentences, fail to create.
But David Wroblewski, even though it's his first novel, knows how to tell a damn good story. "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" is really hard to put into a category. It's a ghost story, a tragedy, a coming of age tale, a love letter to dogs, a revenge sage, a survival drama, a distinctly American narrative. It's about the struggle to put into words all of the messy and conflicting things that we, us stubborn, confusing creatures called humans, feel. It's about the ultimate failure and futility of so much of our language and so many of our human gestures when it comes to articulating what we mean and think and know. It's about the mysteries that occur all around us and inside of us, but which so many times go unnoticed because they aren't expressed in ways humans can or want to understand. This book is about so many things, so many threads and strands and nuances that appear to be distinct and self contained but which perfectly, wrenchingly come together in the end.
The entirety of this book is well written. The story is told with tremendous confidence and restraint throughout. But there are just some utterly rapturous passages, the kind of writing that removes you from your world. Most writing gets you about half way there. But a piece of you is still in that chair or on that bed, tethered to reality. But great writing takes you completely away. It immerses you in the world of the book. It's the closest thing to time travel there will probably ever be. And Wroblewski is that kind of writer. There's this scene in the rain about a third of the way through. I won't go into too much detail because I don't want to give too much away, but it's the absolute heart of the novel. It speaks to the book's central idea that there are truths that go deeper and farther beyond the boundaries and limitations we humans surround ourselves with, if only we let ourselves see them. And it's sort of like the dog chapters. In lesser hands, hell even in a lot of very good hands, this chapter would be ludicrous. It would derail the book and manipulate the reader. But in Wroblewski's hands, it's so, so right. Again you just find yourself saying of course. Of course this would happen. Of course it would happen this way. There could have been no other outcome.
And that's what great writing is. It's always stuck with me, this thing I learned in one of my early fiction classes. I'm sure some famous author said it and I wish I could remember, but that part I don't remember. What I do remember is the idea, which was that a great story should get the reader to a place that is both unexpected and completely inevitable. That's what this book does again and again. And along the way Wroblewski creates these rich, believable characters, from Edgar's mother, a woman both resilient and broken who has known sorrow and who has willed herself to turn turn away from it, to his uncle Claude, who may be one of the greatest literary villains I've come across in some time. He doesn't twirl his mustache and cackle. He's actually likable on several occasions. But Wroblewski reveals a weakness and a darkness in him that are just as terrifying as any weapon. And the dogs. I've talked about them already but I can't say enough about them. I can't do justice to the way Wroblewski reveals them as creatures with inner lives just as fascinating as the humans who train them.
There are so many reasons to rave about this book. I could go on and on and never really describe what is about it that makes it so special. So please find out for yourself. If you're one of those people who purposely avoid an Oprah book club pick because it's too "mainstream", I urge you to consider this one. There are books you read and enjoy and which ultimately fade inside of your mind. But this is the kind of book that stays with you. This is the kind of book you ache for when it's over, where you're actually homesick for the world contained within those 562 pages. And what a world it is, populated by humans and ghosts and beautiful dogs and strange, unnameable things which linger just outside the scope of our language.