The right ending
I wrote this post before Oprah announced her next reading club pick, but didn’t get around to putting it up until now. If you’re going to read THE LIFE OF EDGAR SAWTELLE you have my permission to skip this post because it gives stuff away. Like, the ending.
I’ve been working on the ending of THE LANGUAGE OF BEES. The beginning and middle, too, but most recently the ending, reshaping it, removing a character I decided did not belong there, making it faster and clearer and more complex.
In the meantime, I’ve been reading THE LIFE OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, a book getting a lot of buzz on the “Is this Oprah’s next choice?” circuit. And I couldn’t see why she would want it, until I reached the end, because (and this is where, if you intend to read the book—and it is well worth reading, 547 pages of it anyway—you should stop) Oprah likes depressing books. Oprah likes glum and dim (not dark, that’s different) and unrelieved awfulness landing on the poor characters with only maybe a faint glimmer of some light at the end, for one or two of them. This is actually kind of nice, because those of us who don’t like books that remind us of people we cross the street to avoid see that little printed Oprah’s Choice sticker on the cover and know to pass it over.
But EDGAR SAWTELLE has been well reviewed and sounded interesting, and even though it’s 562 pages and at my current reading pace was going to mean more than a week’s investment, I bought it. And loved the world David Wroblewski crafted: unique dogs in a unique family, a breed shaped through fifty canine generations to interact with human beings, to communicate and not only obey, but obey thoughtfully. The main character is a boy who is mute but not deaf, and the family has not only bred the dogs, but kept records of every dog, every step of the way, even after they are placed with others. Interesting concept, gorgeous writing, great characters, including the dogs.
But Wroblewski is a product of creative writing courses. By and large, books judged great in the early 21st century Western world do not have happy endings, period.
Let me pause here to say that I do not require happy endings. The warm-and-fuzzy feeling is a pleasant bonus, but I’m very willing to sacrifice it for Right. And sometimes Right is dark and sometimes Right is weird, but whatever flavor it leaves in the reader’s mouth, the end has to complete the book. When I close a book for the last time, I need the ending note (to shift sensual-analogies here) to reverberate through the memory of all those pages before it. It is the author’s last chance to communicate with me, to tell me what he had in mind, what he wants me to know.
EDGAR SAWTELLE reads as if the first draft had a happy ending, but when Wroblewski showed it to his writing teachers, they shook their heads mournfully and told him that Great Books don’t have cheerful endings. Look at COLD MOUNTAIN. So he suppressed his storyteller’s instincts and went away and made it all modern and depressing.
But the problem is, he didn’t just make it depressing, he made the ending a sound and a fury, signifying nothing. Fire, explosions, exotic poison, violence, the villain and the hero meeting face to face. And our young hero not only rescues the dogs, he rescues all the paper that IS the dogs, the narrative of the breeding process that grants dimension and immortality not only to the breed, but to the three generations of Sawtelles who dedicated their lives to their dogs.
Then he dies. And his enemy dies. And his mother is injured, and emptied of will, and anyway she has never been interested in the paperwork the boy has just given his life to save. And finally, some of the dogs escape into the wilderness, where one gathers they are to live on their own, away from humans. That utterly unique form of interspecies communication is rendered pointless, with neither breeding program nor link between dog and man. The protagonist is dead, the villain is dead, the point of it all vanishes in smoke.
A week’s rapt reading, and: That’s it, folks, over now, sorry, it was a nice story but here’s the real world where shit-storms happen and everyone dies and nothing means anything, anyway.
Now, normally I am the head of the LRK lending library, with many of the hardbacks I buy getting read by three or four others. But this book? Can I tell my fellow family and friends to enjoy the book but maybe shut it at the beginning of page 548?
What about you—any books you loved whose endings made you want to throw it across the room?