I have admitted in previous entries that I am a relatively slow reader. I read well, I think, but slowly. Perhaps I’m a better reader because of it. But because I love reading, and because I have the English major’s obsession with a list of things I want to (and think I should) read, I am sometimes paralyzed when friends gift me books. Recently, as in within the last year or two, I have been gifted a couple of books, books for which I had no previous knowledge or awareness, but books, as I came to understand by a very cursory digging around, that are well-known, well respected, critically acclaimed, examples of the dreaded “classic I’ve never heard of” category of books, or the “contemporary genius I’ve never heard of” category of books. Of course, then, they must be added to the list of books I want to (and think I should) read. And that’s all fine and good. But because they have been GIFTED to me, in each case by people I love and respect, there’s this added sense of responsibility toward putting those books at the top of the list–of reading those books before others on the list, because, you know, they were gifts, thoughtful gifts, and there’s this feeling that I am obligated to read and share my reaction with the very kind friend who gifted me the book. In at least a couple of occasions, that obligation, that sense of responsibility toward my benefactor, has gone on for a year or two. In that time–lots of guilty wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. It’s time, then, finally, to fulfill my obligation and tackle once and for all the gifted books, or at least today, one of them.
I love dogs. Growing up, I always had dogs. As an adult, my wife and I through our long history together have rarely ever been without a dog. Now we have two. And, you know, if you are, like us, somewhat in love with your dogs, they end up making their way into your social networking feeds–you’re posting cute pictures of them with funny captions, you’re revealing their most recent exploits (ours love to escape into the neighborhood to flirt with death and pillage like pirates), you’re writing poems about them, or you’re taking selfies of them napping with you. I try to be careful about this. I don’t do it a ton. I love them–but they are not the absolute center of my existence. Nevertheless, the few times I have posted dog activity inspired a good friend of mine, the poet Terri Ford, to send me this book under discussion today, The 2015 Writer’s Trust of Canada Fiction Prize winner, André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs.
A book I have owned but never read is The Hidden Life of Dogs, although I know vaguely that it is a non-fiction study about what it’s like to be a dog–how a dog thinks and feels as it exists, you know, as a dog. This novel by André Alexis, Fifteen Dogs, is a different kind of study. It is a novel that asks the question, what if, not all dogs, but fifteen dogs, had the capacity to think and feel like humans do.
Here’s the set up, right out of the gate: two gods walk into a bar–no, this is not a joke–two gods actually walk into a bar (Apollo and Hermes, to be precise) and over five rounds (they’re beer drinkers) they begin a philosophical discussion about the relative significance of human beings compared to any other living creature. Apollo sees them as no better, no worse. Hermes argues that they are more interesting, more complex, more amusing than any other creatures. Hermes wonders what it would be like if animals had the intelligence of human beings, and Apollo wonders whether, with that kind of capacity, animals would be as unhappy as humans are. Apollo suggests a wager: a year of servitude that, given human intelligence, animals would be more unhappy than humans. Under one condition, Hermes insists, that if just ONE of these animals is happy when they die, Hermes would be the victor. It is agreed, and, walking out of the bar the two gods spy a kennel–so a decision is made: let it be dogs. And it was. The fifteen dogs staying overnight at this particular kennel, through divine intervention, are given human intelligence. This group of randomly assorted breeds, then, immediately put that human intelligence to good use and escape from the kennel. And we are off to the races.
There are early and devastating results. Three tragic and clearly unhappy deaths immediately ensue. There’s a conflict between the remaining pack of dogs as to whether or not this new ability is a blessing or a curse. One dog begins reciting original poetry and is summarily shunned. Very soon, we have a Lord of the Flies type situation on our hands. Whereas, in Lord of the Flies, children on their own act like animals (but that’s probably not fair, as Golding seems to be saying that human beings are a far inferior species, and that the children, as opposed to acting like animals, are just really acting like adults–who act like animals), in Fifteen Dogs, animals act like humans, but then, many of them, try to avoid acting like humans, the result of which is that they become dogs acting like humans acting like dogs who are aware of the contradiction. The remainder of this highly engaging, super richly woven, intensely and seriously witty novel follows the survivors of the initial chaos as they navigate their lives without the original pack and as the wagering gods, among others (the Fates and Zeus himself), follow their progress. Which of them, if any, will die happy? Morbidly enough, in order to have an answer to this question, all these dogs must die–and they do. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, really–I mean, it is, but it isn’t, because the joy of this novel is immensely more than the answer to the survival question.
Despite the tone our 3rd person omniscient narrator takes, one of serious reportage, almost a clinical narrative of the facts and just the facts, the novel is hilariously funny in parts, deeply moving in others, philosophically rich, and interestingly enough, humane.
Let’s begin with the funny bits, just a few that were highlights for me: the first time, Prince, the poet dog, recites one of his poems-the reviews from the pack are terribly mixed. And later: “Prince had spoken another poem … and Max had wanted to kill him on the spot.” If Alexis’s hand can be seen anywhere, it is perhaps in his mockery of poetry–“For one thing,” Alexis writes, “like most poets, Prince’s way of reciting his works was eccentric,” a manner of recitation that “would have been strange for any human that was not a poet.” And there is the dog that memorizes the opening passage of Vanity Fair to please it’s literary human master. One of our main character dogs, Majnoun, with his new and beloved human companion, learns film criticism, another dog’s sense of hierarchy is completely befuddled by his human companions’ tendency toward kinky sex.
Perhaps my favorite scene in the novel–funny–yes–but also touching and, to me at least, philosophically truthful, is a scene where Majnoun’s human companion Nira asks him if dogs have stories. He says, of course they do, and then proceeds with a kind of nonsensical thing and perhaps what you would expect to be standard dog fare, a story about looking for a mate and digging and more digging and calling out and finally feeling hungry. Nira says, it doesn’t really have an ending. And Majnoun replies: “It has a very moving ending. Is it not sad to be caught between desires?”
We anthropomorphize our pets anyway, don’t we, and most animals? By some strange act of trickery, Alexis allows us to see dogs in kind of the way we already imagine them–so, we are really not all that surprised with the stuff that these dogs do and think–and because the dog language in this novel is not, initially, human language, it’s even easier for the reader to be convinced of this reality. Only when the dogs start conversing with human beings in English is our credulity kind of pushed to the limit–but again, we should not have a problem with this, right? We know we are not reading realistic fiction–we know this is fantasy, or fantastic, or speculative, or, as the author points out on the title page, it’s “apologue” (a word I had never heard until I picked up this novel) a moral fable, especially one with animals as characters.
So what are its morals? I think there is much here about the nature of things–the nature of happiness, the nature of dog, of humanity, of the symbiotic relationship between the two, about companionship, about finding one’s true nature, about the way we die and qualitatively, how. The power of poetry, whether it lasts or not. The poet dog–despite Alexis’s funning with his art, is maybe, ultimately, the hero of this tale. Morals. It’s not like an Aesop moral, an admonition against or for a particular behavior. I struggle teaching theme to my students and I often warn them about turning theme into “the moral of the story.” Themes have moral implications, I say, but they are not often, morals per se. Don’t do this. Do that instead. Not so much. Rather, and I think this novel achieves this in flying colors: Fifteen Dogs tells us about how things are, not how they should be.
To conclude, I would like to give thanks to the gods for dogs and this novel, but especially, thanks to Terri Ford, who gifted me this book, who is a lover of dogs, and a poet of extraordinary gifts. Her collection of poems, Hams Beneath the Firmament, is a marvel. She is one of the most wildly inventive and playful poets I have ever read. With her permission, let’s close this week’s blog with a poem by Terri Ford from Hams Beneath the Firmament—not a dog poem–but an animal poem nonetheless, one in her series of poems about Budgies–which is a bird, by the way, a bird that some people have as pets.
Death to the Budgie: A Public Service Announcement
There’s a menace wields a skillet: Teflon is the silent killer.
The budgie life is a life of PERIL. Beware of anything on this list:
burning candles, scented candles, plug-in air fresheners (deadly oil
that seeps), air conditioners, drafts, monsoons. If you deign let
your budgie out: ceiling fan blades, dastard children (hight pitch, sudden
moves), halogen lamps (death by flame), doors in motion, bathtubs, sinks
& toilets. Enjoy your budgie. Keep him safe
from the proverbial glass full or half (he could drown!!),
bookshelves budgie could fall behind, electric cords, your goddamned
feet, dogs, cats, yarn, open windows, and of course the drunkTerri Ford
with her tiny window of judgment opening cage doors on a lark.
There is just so much to love about this poem. But I chose it because I think it’s a fitting parallel to this lovely novel. It’s a dangerous world out there for dogs, people, and budgies. We gots to be careful. We have to take care of each other and our animals. We try to avoid becoming the playthings of the gods, the fates, and/or stupid, dumb, bad luck. Thank you so much for tuning in. So long. Stay cool. Be kind. Cheers. Take care!