“The Dog” is the unnamed narrator of Joseph O’Neill’s fourth novel but, in some ways, we are all “The Dog”. Locked in contradictions, often hypocritical, occasionally self-aware, the narrator, who’s not a four-legged canine but a Dubai-based Swiss-American lawyer, elicits the reader’s reluctant sympathy.
He isn’t likeable but, in his slippery company, some of his responses to the anomie around him start to make uncomfortable sense. We disapprove of him sleeping with prostitutes but should he be condemned for changing his mind about having children with his girlfriend of nine years? It would have been crueller to father children he didn’t want. A self-described “meta-fool”, he knows Dubai runs on draconian laws and exploited labour but stays because life has lead him there and he needs to make a living. Like many expats, he has “a special incentive… to not be elsewhere.”
The lawyer narrator is similar to the banker narrator of O’Neill’s previous novel, the best-selling Netherland (2008), in that he reflects on a troubled relationship while working abroad. Dubai, where he operates in a loosely-defined role for a university friend’s family firm, seems like a departure from the New York of Netherland, but continents and cultures are mere air miles to O’Neill’s global elite. He articulates a kind of business class existentialism, which is difficult to get excited about, and The Dog is composed of deliberately convoluted sentences which thwart the reader’s absorption. The narrator’s description of his own disclaimer sounds apt: “A heartless, fearless, terrifying work of negation… that withheld the basic hospitality of writing.”
It would be unfair to call The Dog “heartless”, and flattering to say it’s “terrifying”, but I felt more engaged by its themes of friendlessness, nationality and injustice during breaks from reading, than I did while working through it. The narrator’s solitary existence at his luxury apartment complex, named “The Situation”, and the disappearance of a compatriot, generates intrigue but the story moves slowly. Just as the narrator, who pays for everything in his life, imagines a level of “human attachment surpassing of reciprocity”, O’Neill challenges the terms of the relationship between writer and reader.
His novel’s strange power in part explains its Man Booker Prize long-listing. Netherland took place in the aftermath of 9/11 and The Dog is shadowed by the financial crisis, so O’Neill is again stalking the zeitgeist, but his observations about social media miss the target. The narrator thinks Facebook lets users create “a hiding place out of conspicuousness.” That’s true but it sounds obvious in a novel.
The Dog isn’t devoid of poetry and there’s a lovely line about a convicted fraudster who’s “surfaced from illusion.” It’s clever, contemporary, but more likely to inspire admiration than pleasure. It makes me yearn to read novels by those who lack access to them and read travel writing by those who haven’t travelled. Rather than looking down from posh apartments, we need to find out what those looking up from below think. Perhaps that’s what The Dog is really about.
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