Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘The Friend’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – Kindle edition; Virago; 224 pages; 2019.

This is the third book by Sigrid Nunez that I have read this year. She was a new discovery for me back in January, when I fell in love with her wonderful novel The Last of her Kind, but I’m fairly certain that if I had read The Friend first I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading anything else by her.

Not that this is a bad book. I enjoyed it. But its rambling nature, its lack of plot and structure, tested my patience at a time when I had little patience to test.

I know it pre-dated What Are You Going Through, but it felt very much like a companion piece to that novel — and maybe that’s why it didn’t really work for me: I simply read them too close together.

A canine inheritance

The Friend is about an unnamed middle-aged woman who inherits a dog after her best friend, a male creative writing professor, dies and leaves his great Dane to her. The inheritance, like his death (a suicide), is unexpected. Despite their close friendship for more than 30 years, the idea that the woman would look after his dog if he died has never been discussed: she finds out the (not particularly welcome) news when his third wife invites her for a coffee.

The dog, Apollo, is beautiful, docile and loyal, but he’s huge and he takes up so much room in her Manhattan apartment he has to sleep on her bed. And yet, for all the inconvenience and stress of living together in such a confined space, the pair of them get along well. He teaches her patience. She begins to fall in love with him.

But his presence in the building is forbidden by her landlord who has banned pets. There is a very real possibility that she will lose her much loved rent-controlled apartment if she does not find another home for Apollo.

That sense of jeopardy is what holds the entire narrative together — will she keep the dog and be turfed out into the street, or will she find a way to get rid of him?

Recurring themes

This, however, is a thin premise for a plot; most of the novel reads like a series of essays (the book is comprised of 12 parts) that focus on recurring themes. These include, among others, suicide and its aftermath; platonic friendship, sexual relationships and marriage; grief and bereavement; academic life; creative writing, writing as a profession and literature; dogs as companions and dogs in literature.

These forays or diversions read like long passages of stream-of-consciousness or eloquent diary entries — and there’s a hint of meta-fiction throughout (is the narrator, for instance, really Nunez in disguise). They’re brim-full of insights and there’s an emphasis on detail, and despite some heavy subject matter — this is, after all, a book about suicide and its aftermath — there’s a seam of humour running throughout the narrative, a slight poking of fun at the ridiculous concept of a small woman looking after a gigantic dog.

I should also point out that it’s all written in the second person; the “you” is the dead friend, but by the last chapter the “you” has become the dog. Make of that what you will.

The Friend is an intriguing concept for a book. But for all its humanity and its intelligence and its look at an “outsider” — an unmarried woman finding true companionship with a dog  — I found the story didn’t really hold my interest. Perhaps that’s because it’s the kind of book you really need to be in the mood for.

Don’t let my review put you off though. Annabel liked it more than me — and so did Eric.

André Alexis, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting

‘Fifteen Dogs’ by André Alexis

Fifteen-dogs

Fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 159 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs has been longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. It’s by far the oddest, and possibly most absurd, book I’ve read in a long while. Indeed, to say I didn’t much like it might be an understatement.

Under normal circumstances, I’m sure I would have abandoned this strange and unusual novella. But as some of you will no doubt know, every year since 2011 I have taken part in the Shadow Giller — chaired by KevinfromCanada — in which a group of us read and review all the books on the Giller Prize longlist for that year. Between the four of us, we then choose a winner in advance of the real Giller.  (You can read more about how the Shadow Giller came about on Kevin’s blog here.) And because I’m taking part in the process once again for 2015, I felt that I had to finish the book — even when every bone (pun not intended) in my body told me to put it aside and read something else instead!

So, what’s so weird about it, I hear you ask? Well, it takes the form of a fable in which the Greek gods Hermes and Apollo give a group of dogs the gift of consciousness. The idea is that intelligence does not make humans any more superior or happier than other animals.

— I’ll wager a year’s servitude, said Apollo, that animals — any animal you choose — would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.
— An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.

And then 15 dogs, all staying overnight in a veterinary clinic in Toronto, discover that they can suddenly think for themselves, talk in a new language (English) and reason with one another. Yes, I told you it was a weird book.

Go to the dogs

Fifteen Dogs follows the antics of the dogs, some of whom reject their new ability with language and revert back to the “old dog ways”, and through a series of set pieces, rather than a typical story arc, shows how their relationships with one another and humans changes as a result of their newfound intelligence. Sometimes this is quite horrifying — one set of dogs, for instance, leads another set to their deaths — but only goes to show where the idiom it’s a dog-eat-dog world comes from! But at other times it’s quite touching — the deep friendship that develops between Majnouin, a black poodle, and his human owner, Nira, for example.

Of course, I can’t dismiss Fifteen Dogs entirely. While fables aren’t my kind of thing, and I struggle with stories that demand that I suspend belief (even if it’s just for 150 or so pages), this novella does explore some interesting ideas around language (one of the dogs, for instance, composes poetry), cultural codes of conduct, emotion, individuality and morality. And if you’ve ever had a dog or own a dog (or commission training articles about them, like I do) there’s plenty of behaviours to recognise (and occasionally laugh about) in these pages.

But the book doesn’t just concentrate on canine behaviour: it also shines a light on (the absurdity of) human behaviour, as this quote, through the eyes of Benjy the beagle, shows:

And then there was the room where the humans bathed and applied chemicals to themselves. The bathroom was fascinating, it being astonishing to watch the already pale beings applying creams to make themselves paler still. Was there something about white that bought status? If so, what was the point of drawing black circles around their eyes or red ones around their mouths?

I can’t say that I’d like this deeply philosophical book to make the Giller Prize shortlist, which is announced on 5 October, but I can’t fault its originality or its ability to make you see the world in a slightly different way. It’s insightful and inventive, but not one for me…

Please note, Fifteen Dogs is not yet published in the UK. I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy, sent to me unsolicited. It will be published here on 5 November.

UPDATE 11 NOVEMBER 2015:
Congratulations to André Alexis, who was awarded the 2015 Giller Prize last night. You can read more about his win on the official Giller Prize website.

Author, Back Bay Books, Book review, Carolyn Parkhurst, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Dogs of Babel’ by Carolyn Parkhurst

Dogs_of_Babel

Fiction – paperback; Back Bay Books; 264 pages; 2003.

The Dogs of Babel is a truly original, off-beat story by first-time novelist Carolyn Parkhurst.

Published in the UK under the title Lorelei’s Secret, I mooched this on a whim from a reader in Switzerland. “I really liked this book,” she wrote in a note tucked inside the front cover, “It was much better than I expected.” To which I have to concur.

The story is about Paul, a 40-something college professor on a quest to discover whether his wife’s death was an accident or suicide: Lexy had fallen out of a tree in the couple’s back garden while he was at work. The only witness to the tragic event was their dog, a Rhodesian ridgeback called Lorelei.

Paul, who teaches linguistics, decides to embark on a strange scientific experiment: he plans to teach Lorelei to talk so that she can tell him what she saw on that fateful day. His decision to carry out such a plainly absurd exercise earns him the wrath of friends and colleagues, but Paul firmly believes it is the only way he can solve “certain anomalies” of Lexy’s death. These anomalies involve a strange set of “clues”: the couple’s vast collection of books have been rearranged so they are no longer in their normal positions, and on the day of Lexy’s death Lorelei had been fed a 20-ounce steak that Paul had been planning to barbecue that night on the grill.

Maybe these events mean nothing. After all, I am a grieving man, and I am trying very hard to find some sense in my wife’s death. But the evidence I have discovered is sufficiently strange to make me wonder what really happened that day, whether it was really a desire for apples that led my sweet wife to climb to the top of that tree. Lorelei is my witness, not just to Lexy’s death but to all the events leading up to it. She watched Lexy move through her days and her nights. She was there for the unfolding of our marriage from its first day to its last. Simply put, she knows things I don’t. I feel I must do whatever I can to unlock that knowledge.

As crazy as the premise of this book might sound, the story seems entirely plausible throughout — there’s no need to suspend belief or to wonder if the author might have been taking hallucinogenic drugs when she wrote it! You become truly convinced of Paul’s faith in his experiment even though its folly is clear from the outset.

Putting aside the kookiness of the subject matter, The Dogs of Babel is actually a very fine portrait of a marriage and the way in which ordinary people react when thrust into extraordinary situations. The style is hugely reminiscent of Anne Tyler, an author who has an uncanny ability to write about daily life and small-scale domestic dramas so that each moment, each character is imbued with emotional importance.

And there are touches of Chuck Palahniuk, too, namely in the surreal nature of Paul’s quest and his eventual run-in with a secret cult that believes it is possible to make dogs talk.

But the real beauty of the book is Parkhurst’s steady drip-feed of information which she supplies via a series of flashbacks in which Paul reminisces about his wife: how they met and fell in love; what it was like settling into marriage; and how the first cracks began to appear in their near-perfect relationship. While we only ever get to experience their marriage through Paul’s eyes, it doesn’t take long to see that everything is not quite as it seems.

The pleasure of this clever, emotional and occasionally winsome novel is trying to work out what really happened to Lexy long before Paul does. A love story and mystery all rolled into one, I read it in two sittings and enjoyed every moment.