I’ve been reading The Story of Edgar Sawtell, a novel by David Wroblewski. I almost never abandon a book once I’ve started reading it, but I fear that I may put this one aside soon. While there is much that I enjoy about the novel, and it has received praise from many authors and critics alike, there are aspects of the novel that are driving me a little batty.
Two in particular, though I warn you: reading on will spoil certain aspects of the book.
First and foremost, the book begins as realistic fiction, and for the first couple hundred pages, it proceeds along this course as expected. It’s a bit of a slow start, but I was enjoying the story until a key moment when Edgar’s father dies and later returns as a ghost.
Yes, a ghost.
While I’m not averse at all to fantasy and other forms of less-than-realistic fiction (I’ve recently fallen in love with Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime series), you can’t bring the reader along with realistic fiction for two hundred pages and then suddenly introduce a ghost. It violates the trust that the writer forges with his reader and disrupts the equilibrium of the story. It’s similar to my reaction to the Dean Koontz novels that I have read in the past. Koontz has a habit of presenting a fantastically suspenseful and mysterious situation in his novels, set within what appears to be realistic fiction, only to later reveal the source of the mystery as something utterly unimaginable, fantastic, and impossible.
As a reader, I’m left to feel frustrated and annoyed, having waited for a clever plot turn and instead received a seemingly simple fantasy or a clunky use of deux ex machina.
See the clone in Mr. Murder as a good example of this.
In addition to this complaint, it also became immediately apparent upon the arrival of Edgar’s father’s ghost that I was in the middle of a retelling of Hamlet, even though it took two hundred pages to make this clear. Edgar’s father returns to tell Edgar that he was murdered by his brother, Claude, who appears to have begun a relationship with Edgar’s mother. For those of you not familiar with this Shakespearean play, the same happens to Hamlet on the walls of Castle Elsinore, and the brother who murdered Hamlet’s father and has wed his widow is named Claudius.
Claude and Claudius? C’mon. Smash me over the head with a sledgehammer, why don’t you?
I just began reading a section of the book in which Edgar intends to train his dogs to perform a reenactment of the murder of his father, hoping that Claude’s reaction to the scene will confirm Edgar’s suspicions. A similar situation is presented in Hamlet, with the role of the dogs played by the members of a traveling band of actors. If I remember correctly, Hamlet declares that in the play, “I will catch the conscience of the King!”
This was simply too much for me. I can never understand why authors choose to write modern-day adaptations of classics such as Hamlet. In my mind, it steals from the potential creativity of the novel, and more importantly, it allows the reader to accurately guess how the novel will end. At the end of Hamlet, almost everyone is dead save Hamlet’s faithful friend, Horatio. Am I right to assume that The Story of Edgar Sawtell will end similarly, with Edgar killing someone by mistake (probably Dr. Papineau, the only other central figure in the text and a likely Polonius stand-in)) and eventually dying (please don’t let it be poison) alongside Claude and his mother, leaving only Edgar’s dog left standing.
I’m afraid I might never know since I think this book will be returning to the shelf this evening in favor of something else.
Perhaps a reader can confirm or deny my suspicions.