Saturday, August 8, 2009

Recycling the Classics, or Magwitch and Hamlet Get a Make-Over

"Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us."--Ecclesiastes 1:10

The Preacher was right: there is nothing new under the sun.

For instance, I recently finished reading two contemporary novels that take their cues from the classics: Peter Carey's Jack Maggs (a loose retelling of Charles Dicken's Great Expectations) and David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (a modern re-envisioning of Shakespeare's Hamlet). Both novels stand on their own, independent of the works that inspired them, so readers don't need to bone up on Dickens and Shakespeare to appreciate them. Still, I had read Great Expectations and Hamlet before reading these novels, and I was surprised to learn how much my exposure to these "parent texts" affected my reading--and judgement.

Jack Maggs is a smartly veiled retelling of the life of Abel Magwitch, the secret benefactor in Great Expectations. Like Magwitch, Jack Maggs is a English convict from Australia who returns to England illegally in order to visit a young gentleman whom he financially supports. Able to locate the gentleman's home, but not the gentleman himself, Maggs finds work as the neighbor's footman. By means natural and (seemingly) supernatural, his dark past quickly comes to the attention of his new employer and his staff, who subsequently treat him with mixture of fear, contempt, wonder, and sympathy. He also becomes an object of interest for Tobias Oates, an up-and-coming novelist, who wants to turn Magg's life (or the life he imagines for Maggs) into a best-selling novel.

Jack Maggs works extremely well as a novel in conversation with another novel. Wisely, Peter Carey does not try rewrite Great Expectations; rather, he uses elements Dickens's novel as a springboard for the exploration of possibilities: What if Great Expectations had been Magwitch's story instead of Pip's? or What if Pip had been a completely selfish, despicable person? This exploration of possibilities, however, is not crucial to the success of the novel. As I mentioned earlier, a reader can appreciate Jack Maggs without having read Great Expectations.

Still, the novel works best as a novel about novels. Aside from Maggs, the most important character in Jack Maggs is the novelist Tobias Oates, whose fictional life mirrors the life of young Charles Dickens. Through Oates's attempts to fictionalize Maggs's life, Carey is able to underscore the artificiality of narrative and the act of literary creation, which helps to explain the novel's anti-climax. Likewise, Maggs's violent resistance to Oates's desire to confine the unpredictability of life into the predictability of narrative convention lends further support to the idea that this novel is a critique of its own form.

If Jack Maggs is a lesson on how to borrow from the classics, then David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a lesson on how not to borrow from them.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is about a mute boy and the crisis he undergoes when his uncle murders his dad, shacks up with his mom, and tries to take over the family's dog-breeding business. If the plot sounds familiar, then you've probably read William Shakespeare's Hamlet or seen the movie Strange Brew. Consequently, reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle often feels like you're listening to a mediocre cover of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone".

To be fair, Edgar Sawtelle is not a bad novel. For the most part, it is an interesting and entertaining read; its characters are well-rendered, especially those of Edgar and his mother, and the prose never bores or annoys the way the prose of, say, Louise Ehrdrich bores and annoys. Still, the novel gets too close to its source at times, making the plot predictable. I often found myself betting on what would happen next in the novel and hitting the jackpot every time.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is at its best when it isn't trying to be Hamlet. Unfortunately, it is rarely at its best.

Ultimately, the major difference between Jack Maggs and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is devotion. Jack Maggs consciously borrows from Great Expectations, but it doesn't need Great Expectations. In a sense, Carey's use of Dickens is strategic, not devotional; by re-imagining an influential classic novel, he reevaluates the classic or traditional form exhibited in that novel (and novels like it). Wroblewski, on the other hand, is too devoted to his source story to accomplish anything similar with his re-imagining of Hamlet. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, therefore, adds nothing new to our understanding of Hamlet, Shakespeare, or tragedy.

In my opinion, you ought to stick with Hamlet. While there are no new things under the sun, there are some things that manage to shed new light. Jack Maggs is such a thing. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, on the other hand, is not. When it comes to shedding light, if fact, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is about as bright as a glowbug.

1 comment:

  1. Those are both interesting sounding books, neither of which are ones I would have noticed or picked up on my own. I'll have to think about whether or not to add them to my growing list of books to read.. or just put Hamlet on instead!