Hamlet is everywhere. He still pops up in the stories we like to tell ourselves. David Wroblewski’s 2008 Oprah-driven bestseller, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, is a well-known example of a parallel narrative, but TV and movies also celebrate the Hamlet archetype: from Sons of Anarchy to The Lion King; The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” Hamlet is one of my favorites (come for Homer as Hamlet Sr.; stay for Ralph Wiggum as Laertes). Stories that merely suggest a Hamlet motif still reap the rewards of connection, often for laughs: Calvin (of Hobbes fame) soliloquized a green lump of vegetables. There’s even a Gilligan’s Island episode where the castaways sing the play. And I’m just waiting for Baz Luhrmann to do a bright and flashing Denmark-meets-Lana Del Rey orgy of sequins and poisoned wine in pimp cups, a thumping Hamlet for Generation Z.
Timothy Schaffert’s latest novel, The Swan Gondola, is a rollicking adventure set during the Omaha World’s Fair of 1898, and starring a romantic and rapscallion cast of vaudevillians, actresses, snake oil salesman, and all around ne’er-do-wells. Inspired in part by The Wizard of Oz, Schaffert’s tale is jam-packed with so much drama, intrigue, and delight that you will finish the book begging for more.
Here, as an exclusive to Ploughshares, Timothy shares further tales of The Swan Gondola, from the weird to the wonderful.
Q: The Swan Gondola has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster: action, mystery, romance, and the all-important super-cool period costumes. Who should direct the movie adaptation, and why? Michael Bay or Baz Luhrmann?
A: I think they should both do competing versions. Bay hasn’t done a period film since “Pearl Harbor,” and “The Swan Gondola” would be an opportunity for him to show his softer side while also incorporating his digital expertise in recreating the Fair, and the streets of 1890s Omaha. And the book seems to fit nicely in Luhrmann’s oeuvre, with its fireworks, burlesque theaters, runaway horses, grand mansions and less-grand tenements and garrets. He seems particularly interested in the tensions between the haves and have-nots. And both Bay and Luhrmann could do it in 3D. They have my blessing.
The Other Typist
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, May 2013
The Other Typist, a crime mystery nestled inside a lovely period piece, is the story of Rose Baker, a stenographer at a Manhattan police station in the early 1920s. Rose is particularly well-suited to her job: an unflappable, meticulous person, she was raised by nuns to be a proper lady. Her life is spartan and sensible, her politics entrenched in a strict Victorian morality.
Then in walks the new girl at the precinct, Odalie Lazare—a femme fatale in a bob cut. She smokes, she parties all night at the local speakeasy, and everywhere she goes men bend to satisfy her desire. Uptight Rose, of course, cannot help but be completely infatuated. And Odalie, too, takes an interest in her fellow typist, drawing Rose deep into her web of bootlegging, bribery, and worse.
One thing I especially love about the film is its soundtrack. Setting the story to a backdrop of current music (Jay-Z, Lana Del Rey, Jack White) is true to Fitzgerald’s own inclusion of pop culture in his work. That’s why this week’s playlists—that’s right, two—for Fitzgerald’s novel, Tender is the Night, cover both the author’s own musical choices and a more modern soundtrack of my own making.
But first a little more about Gatsby, arguably Fitzgerald’s most popular novel.