Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Barn Sized Problem


"I flat-out loved The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. In the end, this isn't a novel about dogs or heartland America, it's a novel about the human heart and the mysteries that live there, understood but impossible to articulate.... I don't reread many books because life is too short. I will be re-reading this one." —Stephen King, author of Duma Key


True that this isn’t a novel about dogs or heartland America.

True that it’s a novel about the human heart and the mysteries that live their, understood but impossible to articulate.

But to re-read it?

That’s where I lost Stephen King.

Like I lost David Wroblewski while reading the story of Edgar Sawtelle.

How I managed to finish the novel after three months of forced on-off reading is beyond me. Perhaps I just wanted to get it over with; perhaps I was in a mood to punish myself. Or maybe I just wanted to get my money’s worth.

There are sad books and there are sad books. But Edgar Sawtelle is one of a kind.

It’s stifling, yet alluring, depressing, yet oddly exhilarating. It’s scintillating in its beauty, stunning as a consequence of the author’s verbosity.

But reading was laborious, what was even more disconcerting was that the book managed to evoke extreme misery without even trying. But it seemed as if every other word, lugged a greater burden of wretchedness than the last.
The author made no appeal for sympathy, empathy or identification with the character, yet I felt as though my own voice had deserted me. I started to feel that if I spoke, I’d break the spell that cocooned me in a haze of gloom. I should have welcomed that idea, but the author, ever dispassionate, managed to command my attention. It seemed imperative, that I harbor this induced bitterness within me, since only that would enable me to continue reading.

There’s no middle ground, no comfort zone for the reader. There are moments of superlative clarity, packs of convoluted emotions, precise, but inexplicable action, tame grief and ardent stupor, and a kaleidoscope of perplexing characters.

Words are powerful. I started maintaining a diary when I was younger, but even at that age, I never wrote about anything unpleasant that happened. There were primarily two reasons for this. First, putting it in writing would mean a final confirmation of the said unpleasantness having taken place. Secondly, I wanted to avoid the probability, that I would read these entries again at a later time and they would evoke disagreeable emotions even at a later time.

So, there have been times when I cried while reading a book. For the oddest reasons. Not because they stir up despair necessarily, but because it seemed like the only reasonable reaction to something deeply ordinary yet startlingly profound in its impact.

But Edgar Sawtelle doesn’t dispense even that little comfort. The woe and dejection this book arouses, strangulates the reader. But not an expert strangulation that would put an end to the distress (eventually), but the kind that leaves you alive, only to deal with pain and a raspy voice and acute anger. Not to mention scars. And the police. And awkward questions. And sympathy.

In my case, the result was an air of brooding and a terrible early morning attitude.

In the simplest of terms- it messed me up.
There are stories that elicit powerful emotions and ideas. One’s that you don’t want to revisit, for fear, that it will reveal something one won’t like. For example, I never re-read Kite runner because I found it emotionally taxing. But it allowed me to feel for he characters, maybe just grudging respect, or consideration or acute disdain. But it let me retain some essence of what had built up inside me as a consequence of reading the book.

But Edgar Sawtelle, left me dry, bereft of any identifiable feeling. It was this inability to wrench any reaction that further infuriated me.

Even in the throes of my worked up rage, I didn’t manage to invoke dislike for the book.

It felt as if someone had snatched away my control over my opinions. A deeper look into my state of discomfiture showed me that the characters are built in such a way that they defy convention and make it impossible for the reader to form an opinion or to judge them. This defeat at the hands of people, who are essentially inanimate, further added to my disquiet.


I can’t like the book. But I can’t abhor it either. It’s a sweeping, lyrical, evocative and sophisticated story that defies any finite description. For that alone I respect it.

But I cannot re-read it. Not because life is short. I’ve re-read A suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, 1474 pages of India undiluted India several times. But because I feel it’s something to be read once, and only once, to be absorbed in its entirety at one go. I feel almost afraid that this terrifying potency and the enthralling grasp of the book might not be present the next time I read it. I’m afraid that it’ll appear just ordinary, thus enabling me to work up that incapacitated dislike.

It’s something I can’t allow. So the book will find a place on my shelf, the closed pages, retaining the death grip on its enchantment.

I’d issued the newest copy of Gone with the Wind from the school library in Grade 6. I read that same copy a zillion times before I had to return the book and get my own copy. But for a while I was fonder of the issued copy. The edges of a much read book turn blackish from use. For me, this was a mark of my attachment to it, my connection to that book. So until the time my own copy grew relatively ragged and ash grey around the edges, I missed the other.

Other books tell the same story.

It’s strange that The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has just a few tell-tale marks of being read. Lesser than is normal. I found this, more than anything else to be extremely revealing.