by Jill Kronstadt
David Wroblewski traces the genesis of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle to an afternoon in 1993, when, as he describes it in an interview with Peter Scowen of the Globe and Mail, three ideas suddenly came together: writing a novel in five acts, like a play; setting it in rural Wisconsin, where he grew up; and exploring the complicated relationship between humans and dogs. At the time he was in his mid-30s and working as a software engineer. The resulting novel, published in 2008 when Wroblewski was 49, can be described as a contemporary retelling of Hamlet—intentional on Wroblewski’s part—with a mute boy in the title role, a visionary breeding operation standing in for Denmark, and an assemblage of canny dogs serving both as supporting characters and subjects for philosophical musings about the nature of free will.
Wroblewski’s formula succeeds both literarily and commercially because it paradoxically combines its most audacious ingredients (a Hamlet who can’t speak? Ophelia as a dog? An office of overstuffed file cabinets in place of the royal court?) with those of a potential commercial juggernaut (Shakespeare, Über canines). What the wintry Midwest landscape and ever-redoubtable Bard lack in warmth and spontaneity, the dogs supply.
Apart from winning a statewide competition for a short story in high school—which he says he only wrote as an excuse to get out of class for the art fair at which the winners would be announced—Wroblewski didn’t consider writing seriously until he’d reached mid-career as a software designer. Recounting his personal history in a talk at the 2009 National Book Festival, he said, “I always imagined that I was going to be an actor when I grew up. And I didn’t have any reason to believe that this was true. . . . In fact, I assumed so completely that I was going to be an actor that I never bothered to try it . . . [S]o imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only wasn’t I any good at it . . . I didn’t like it. It was boring.” The plays he read during his foray into acting, however, “became part of the bedrock of [his] imagination.” Ten years into his software career, he enrolled in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, a low-residency MFA, and assigned himself the task of learning to write a novel.
12 drafts and many dog years later, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle appeared, rocketing up bestseller lists and into Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. Among new books by Marilynne Robinson, J.M. Coetzee, Louise Erdrich, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Roberto Bolaño, to name just a few, the novel found a place on 2008’s “Best of” lists. Even the dog behaviorist Patricia McConnell praised it, calling it an “instant American Classic” and naming it one of the best novels about dogs. In 2010, Universal Pictures announced plans to produce a film adaptation of the novel, co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks with an initial draft by Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. and rumors that Wentworth Miller, “Prison Break” actor and “Stoker” screenwriter, would do additional work on the script.
Since then, Wroblewski has mostly receded from public scrutiny, living in Colorado with the writer Kimberly McClintock and a dog named Lola whom he will only describe as well-mannered, and working on a novel he will only describe as “long.”
Edgar’s story takes place in rural Wisconsin, where Gar (the senior Edgar) and Trudy run a dog breeding kennel born of a mythic encounter between Edgar’s grandfather, John Sawtelle, and a “massive” and mysterious dog named Captain, whose quiet authority and steady gaze inspired a vision of a New Dog, bred for its ability to connect with humans and intelligent enough to make its own choices.
Edgar, the son of Gar and Trudy, is mute from birth for reasons doctors are unable to explain. He grows up around dogs, but especially Almondine, who alerts Edgar’s parents when Edgar cries without a sound, and with whom he communicates by signing. Ida Paine, who runs a store and intermittently utters prophesies over the cash register, intervenes by leading Trudy to someone who can teach Edgar to sign and declares via her granddaughter that “before you were born, God told you a secret he didn’t want anyone else to know.” Assigned the job of naming all the new puppies, Edgar gradually learns about breeding and training under his father’s tutelage. The arrival of Edgar’s uncle Claude interrupts this idyll, with—for readers familiar with Hamlet—mostly predictable consequences.
After Gar dies suddenly, Edgar and Trudy struggle to maintain the kennel without him. Claude, revealed to have a sinister history involving a dubious apprenticeship to the local veterinarian and a reputation for patching up dogs after illegal dogfights, insinuates himself into life on the farm. Here Wroblewski cleverly embeds key elements from Hamlet. For instance, in place of the play Hamlet creates to expose Claudius’s guilt, Edgar teaches the dogs an eerie pastiche in which they carry syringes in their mouths, tag each other, and then collapse on their sides. Ida urges Edgar to leave, which he does, but not before he accuses Claude of murder to a disbelieving Trudy and causes a serious accident. At Trudy’s urging, he disappears into the woods, taking three Sawtelle dogs (but not Almondine) with him into the woods.
Wroblewski has described The Story of Edgar Sawtelle as a romance between a boy and his dog, as much Romeo and Juliet as it is Hamlet. It’s impossible to read the novel without being captivated by the dogginess of the dogs, who are informed both by Wroblewski’s childhood dogs and his wide reading on the subject of dog cognition. Wroblewski, in an interview at a dog park for the New York Times, says, “I knew I wanted to write about dogs and the way that I knew them, not as fictional devices . . . [R]eal dogs.”
When I first read the novel, in the summer of 2011, Cesar Millan’s vehicle “The Dog Whisperer” had propagated the idea (long discredited by behaviorists, including the scientist who developed the original dominance theory based on captive wolves) that dogs were simple-minded predators engaged in a fight for supremacy over their humans, and that they needed to be controlled with force and fear. “Good dogs,” as many cable viewers had come to understand them, had an obsequious desire to please and passively waited for instructions from their respective “pack leaders.” This dynamic had more in common with Denmark’s homicidal court in Hamlet than it did with any of the dogs I’d known in my life. If characterizing dogs as four-legged, furry human babies was a distortion, then so was interpreting them as wolves who have a special capacity for enslavement by humans. At the time, I had a vague intention of getting a dog someday, but the idea of having a dog just so I could dominate her was something other than appealing. Wroblewski’s Sawtelle dogs, on the other hand, were ones I wanted to know.
Bred for their superior intelligence, trainability, and inborn talent for following the human gaze and using it as a behavior cue (for things like “come,” “stay,” or “down”), the Sawtelle dogs are somewhat unique among dogs in literature for their ability to make independent choices. In a section written from Almondine’s point of view, the dog senses but does not understand Trudy’s pregnancy with Edgar: “All that winter and all through the spring, Almondine had known that something was going to happen, but no matter where she looked, she couldn’t find it. . . . The way [Gar and Trudy] ran their hands down her sides and scratched along her backbone consoled her, but the fact was, she wanted a job to do. . . . And so, near the end of that time, she could only commiserate with Trudy, who now obviously longed to find the thing as much as Almondine, and who had, for some reason, begun to spend her time in bed instead of going to the kennel.”
When Almondine realizes that the infant Edgar can’t make a sound, she assigns herself the task of alerting Trudy when Edgar cries:
Almondine began to pant. She shifted her weight from one hip to another, and as she looked on—and saw his mother continue to sleep—she finally understood: the thing that was going to happen was that her time for training was over, and now, at last, she had a job to do.
And so Almondine gathered her legs beneath her and broke her stay. . . . She drew her tongue along his mother’s face, just once, very deliberately, then stepped back. His mother startled awake.
Besides his own observations and memories, Wroblewski draws on the expertise of dog behaviorists in creating his canine characters, notably Vicki Hearne’s Adam’s Task, which he credits with the idea that dog training involves the development of a shared language between dog and human, “in which questions can be asked and answers given.” An exchange of letters between the fictional John Sawtelle and a conventional dog breeder, Charles Adwin, articulates the conflict between breeding based on instinct for “greatness” and breeding for predictable traits:
I sacrifice brilliance to make a good medicine available to mankind. No one can say if you are that person who, good brushes, and a fine canvas, can produce something better than the factory man. . . . You do have the attitude of the dreamer about you. . . . The painter who creates one masterpiece, never to produce another, is well known. If you have a success, it will most likely be singular.
It’s part of the premise of the novel that the Sawtelle dogs embody this singularity, and it’s part of the irony of the book that the dogs have a decisiveness that Hamlet (the character) sorely lacks.
When Wroblewski discusses the novel in interviews, one gets the sense that the story groans under the weight of so many literary allusions and frays along the lines of its thematic strands. It is almost as though Wroblewski is more interested in the parts than the whole. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which Edgar treasures, is another strong influence: Wroblewski has declared in interviews that it underpins The Story of Edgar Sawtelle just as much as Hamlet does:
I tried to keep the connections in the background, and whenever one or the other of those stories presented parallels, I would try to weave it in. It was great fun. I loved doing that. . . . There’s no reason you would see any parallels to Hamlet until 40 percent into the book. My only frustration is that reviewers spoiled that surprise for readers. But Mowgli [a character in Kipling’s book] is introduced very explicitly in the book. For me, the allusions give it depth and make it interesting. These works have had great resonance for me in my life. In a way, it’s an homage to the stories that I love.
In Wroblewski’s discussion of the process of composing in an interview with Luke Reynolds that appeared in The Writer, his cerebral approach is striking:
I call programming “writing” any chance I get because it is highly experimental. . . . It ends up being a search for a language in which the statement of the solution is beautiful. It’s not a dry mathematical exercise, but very much more an aesthetic exercise. . . . This can happen in writing, as well. Software, for me, has largely been exploration in language . . . you end up thinking about design. You learn how to hold these large complex structures in your mind—which is a skill you need while writing a novel. The list of craft correlations of making software and making fiction is so long that I always run out of time before I get to the end of the list. Everything I learned about craft, I learned in software. It transposes perfectly into writing.
In discussing the novel, Wroblewski has also referenced The Tempest (evoked through the various weather events Edgar encounters), Romeo and Juliet, a general exploration of language, dog psychology, and software design. His allusions to competing masterworks sometimes crowd out the story, which is engaging in its own right. Lengthy interactions with The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, from which Edgar selects dog names like Baboo, Essay, Tinder, and Finch, are sometimes charming but—in combination with Edgar’s and the dogs’ inability to use spoken language—make the novel’s symbolism almost too overdetermined. In other places, as when Edgar encounters a cluster of waterspouts, miniature tornadoes that rise from water in turbulent weather, Wroblewski’s allusions to The Tempest seem natural and delicately handled. When these disparate influences work, they seem on the verge of failing; where they feel strained, they never quite fall apart completely. Yet what most resonates within the novel are the relationships. Unlike in Hamlet, where characters try to defeat one another, those in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle destroy one another through their efforts to connect.
At the same time, Wroblewski unapologetically applauds sweeping emotional gestures in fiction and drama. Speaking to an audience at the National Book Festival, he praises writing that reaches toward “the lowest low, the absolute depth of despair, to the highest high,” in contrast to writing with “some extreme degree of restraint . . . I was interested in exploring the other end of this narrative range.” Sometimes this aesthetic succeeds, as when Claude offers to teach Edgar to drive: Edgar accelerates the car out of control, signing to the uncomprehending Claude not to call him “son” and adding, “In fact . . . I really don’t like you being in my house at all.” At other times, as when Edgar beats his own chest to punish himself for his father’s death and its aftermath, the emotion feels imposed.
In the novel’s best moments, Wroblewski lets the characters stand on their own, without their having to wade through layers of symbolism and intertextuality. At one point, Trudy hires gravediggers to bury Gar, but it’s deep winter and the ground is frozen solid; at her urging, they light a bonfire to thaw it enough for a grave for her husband. One of the most moving passages in the book, told from Almondine’s point of view, takes place after Edgar flees the farm:
All her life she had found whatever she had been asked to find and there had only been one thing ever. Now he was truly lost, gone away, crossed into another world, perhaps, some land unknown to her from which he could not return. The closet was as puzzled as she, the bed silent on the question . . . [S]he had learned, in her life, that time lived inside you. You are time, you breathe time. . . . The apple tree was still nice to lie near. The peony, for its scent, also fine. When she walked through the woods (infrequently now) she picked her way along the path, making way for the boy inside to run along before her. It could be hard to choose the time outside over the time within . . . [A]nd then she turned her head and looked and Edgar was missing all over again. Had he really been there? Had it only been some bit of time inside her?
The dogs, freed from the burden of capital-M Meaning, somehow carry it most easily.
In 2010, asked by Peter Cowen of Canada’s Globe and Mail whether the success of the novel would make it difficult to write another one, Wroblewski said,
I’m unconcerned with the so-called sophomore jinx—a concept I consider specious anyway. (If there’s a jinx, it can get you any time, buster.) That attitude might be hard to believe, but I had a 30-year career making software before Edgar was published, work that taught me many lessons I take to heart. Every project has its own trajectory.
The only way to get over one project is to start another. Will the next book sell as many copies as Edgar’s story? I have no idea. That’s not in my control. It wasn’t for Edgar’s story, either. All I can do is write the next book as well as I know how—to fall completely, absurdly, comically, in love with it, then trying to do it justice.
Tempting as it might be to draw conclusions from the length of the wait between the publication of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and a possible followup, Wroblewski seems to favor an unhurried approach.
Trudy and Edgar think of their dogs as masterpieces that could be spoiled by interaction with non-Sawtelle dogs. Forte, a semi-feral but glorious dog that Edgar and Gar try to induce to choose to join the Sawtelle kennel, provokes an argument about bloodlines that escalates into Claude’s poisoning of Gar. When Edgar runs away into the woods with the adolescent dogs Tinder, Baboo, and Essay, he observes, “Other dogs were a problem, idiot dogs that, having scented [his dogs], loped into the woods, disregarding the cries of their owners to come back, come home, come play. . . . Some trundled along like clowns, others, looking for trouble, like snipers.”
The novel closes with Essay and the other Sawtelle dogs making a choice of whether to remain with the stranger who shelters Edgar, to stay on the farm, or to follow Essay into the forest to join Forte, the implication being that the Sawtelle dogs have become fully conscious beings capable of improving on the design the Sawtelles themselves intended. For me, the story took a personal turn when Wroblewski’s version of “dogness” captivated me so fully that it led me to a local shelter almost exactly a year later. My dog is no Sawtelle dog, but he led me to a secret about The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: the qualities of Wroblewski’s fictional dogs that I found most compelling—the ability to read body language, to communicate and understand, to intuit aspects of their surroundings beyond human awareness, to play and to choose—fully exist in the everyday dogs who sleep at our feet.
Jill Kronstadt’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House Flash Fridays, Moon City Review, The Los Angeles Review, Sou’wester, and others. She and her adopted dog train and compete in agility in the Washington, D.C. area.
Jill Kronstadt’s previous features: You’ve Come a Long Way, Lady James, Ego and Eros: Kate Chopin, Redefining the Female Protagonist, The Wolf Will See You Now: L. Annette Binder’s Rise, Fugue States: Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light