Let’s stop rewriting Hamlet. It’s a great play, but it’s done now. It was written; now it’s read or performed. Rewriting it is like reheating leftovers: Mainly you just think about how good it was the first time around.
Unfortunately, David Wroblewski—who seems like he might be an original talent—has reheated yesterday’s Hamlet with a side of puppies. His debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Ecco, 562 pages, $25.95), tracks a young dog trainer as he tries to get up the nerve to murder his murderous uncle. You know the story. Claude (Claudius) kills his brother Gar (Old Hamlet), seduces Gar’s wife, Trudy (Gertrude), and moves into Gar’s House (Elsinore). The rest, as they say, is silence. There are only two big changes. First: Edgar (Hamlet) is mute from birth—he speaks using sign language. Second: As previously mentioned, there are puppies. To be precise, the Sawtelles are a family of dog breeders, and as such, Sawtelle dogs are cast in several key roles, including Rosencrantz, Gildenstern, Horatio, Ophelia and the traveling players.
I’d just as soon do without those dogs. Who’s to say whether a canine could ever make a well-rounded character? What’s easier to determine is that Wroblewski’s dogs fall short of the mark. They’re heartbreakingly loyal, like Old Yeller, but that’s about it. They are routinely used to bring tears to the readers’ eyes. In their one-dimensionality, they risk drawing this novel into the realm of young-adult fiction.
Wroblewski’s other innovation—a mute Hamlet—fares better. Throughout the novel, English is depicted as a fraught medium: It is a language of crosswords and dictionaries, riddles and lies, obscuring meaning rather than clarifying it. By contrast, Edgar’s sign language offers communication without medium—almost like telepathy—in which there is no untruth or misunderstanding. This is reinforced by the author’s choice not to use quotation marks when taking dictation from his characters, as well as Edgar’s very name (Sawtelle = See + Tell). Thematically, it works very well with the impotence conceit in Hamlet.
But ultimately, Wroblewski’s best writing comes when he deviates furthest from his Shakespearean source material. Chapters that correspond to the murder of Polonius and the closet scene with Gertrude are so unlikely, so forced as to be almost unreadable. Where did that Oedipus complex come from? And the unprompted violence? On the other hand, an encounter with a small-town oracle—one that has no precedent in Hamlet—rings spooky and true, and the account of a waterspout over Lake Superior is thrilling. One wonders what might have happened if Wroblewski had let these characters go where they wanted, instead of forcing Shakespeare’s bak’d meats to coldly furnish forth his marriage tables.
GET THEE TO POWELL’S: David Wroblewski will read from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. Thursday, July 10. 7:30 pm. Free.