Saturday, April 2, 2016

André Alexis' Fifteen Dogs

I know, I know, I know. I made promises I'm not keeping here, but life's a bit busy right now, and the va-et-vient means that sometimes the books I'd like to write about are not in the same city as I am. Soon, though, those books are likely to be packed up in boxes, so I'm going to buckle down and make an effort to make a few notes about them here.

André Alexis' Fifteen Dogs, for example, which I've already recommended in comments earlier this year to Dottoressa.  The basic premise might make the book sound too gimmicky, too concept-driven to be interesting: Dogs thinking and talking like humans, as a result of two gods, Hermes and Apollo, making a bet over a beer. In Alexis' hands, though, the novel not only engages on the levels of plot, character, and setting (the city of Toronto), but it also introduces some existential questions that will stick with you. The gods' bet has grown out of a certain disdain for the human (in)capacity for sustained happiness,  and the bet is on whether or not fifteen dogs (a species for whom, presumably, happiness is more easily achieved) ,  "gifted" with human intelligence, can manage to have even one of their number die happy.

So there's ample room for the novel to examine some intriguing questions about community and values and happiness and self-expression. The value of life, the goals of existence. You know, the little questions!  The point of view, as the dogs become aware of what must have happened to them, is ever so clever, and seeing ourselves as humans through another species' eyes is wonderfully illuminating in the way the best defamiliarisation can be.  As well, any dog lover or owner will chortle at some of the descriptions of dog behaviour, the wonderfully matter-of-fact account of those canine activities whose insistent and indulgent corporeality so disturb our more "civilised" human selves. The novel is particularly interesting in the ways that existentialism focuses on the question of aesthetics, on the drive to creative expression. Another not negligible attraction are the poems composed by one of the dogs.

Yes, really. Alexis has long been interested in the Oulipo project (roughly, a school of poetry whose adherents write under various constraints -- Christian Bok's Eunoia, in which each chapter limits itself, vowel-wise, so that one chapter uses only words with the vowel "a," then another the vowel "e,", is a good example), and the novel includes examples of the Oulipo genre "poems for a dog." Are you skeptical? Check out publisher Coach House's website page for Fifteen Dogs: it contains a lovely example by poet Harry Matthews, written for Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog, Flush. You'll have to read Alexis' novel to enjoy the poems he's had his canine character Prince compose, but you can watch and listen to a short video of the novelist reading dog poetry to a poodle who inspired another of his characters.

Only three months after I read it, then, I've told you something about one of the novels that will probably number among the top ten I read this year. It's one I'd happily recommend to a wide range of readers, not least because it's a slim novel at 160 pages that offers a rich concentration of literary pleasures in engagingly thoughtful, comic, accessible prose.

I can't resist adding that this novel would read well with Eva Hornung's moving and imaginative novel Dog Boy. Have you read either? Thoughts?


  1. Thank you! I heard Andre Alexis interviewed on CBC radio but was in the car and forgot all about it. I have now reserved it from the library...81 holds for 67 copies...hmm...I don't think I'll be able to share my thoughts on it for a while...

    Do you ever reread for pleasure? (I know some of your reading lists noted you reread for teaching.) Sometimes, despite unread books on the pile, I want something that matches my mood, and go in search of an old friend, bookwise.

  2. 81 holds for 67 copies is not so bad, though, is it -- maybe a month? I had just started using our public library (when working, I tended only to use the university library and buy the books I read for pleasure), but have fallen out of the habit with this preparation for moving and will probably wait now to join the VPL once we're over in Vancouver permanently.

    Yes! I do reread for pleasure, although not as often as I want to given how tall the pile of still-to-be-reads is. In fact, I enjoyed thumbing through Fifteen Dogs again, stopping at various passages, as I wrote this post. And I recently grabbed Anne Michael's The Winter Vault off my shelf because I'd remembered some images I wanted to go back to -- I've plopped it on the to-be-reads, although it might keep getting bumped aside by the new... Which books do you like to reread?

  3. Thank you for the recommendation. I have read it in January,liked it very much. Your review is perfect,so there is not much to say- special,interesting,moving,only that I was sad thinking of some aspect of "little questions
    Funny,I was reading it on the plane from Heathrow and discussed with a young man who has finished "Dog Boy"
    I didn't know that there is also a play in London about-"The incident of the dog in the nighttime"
    Last Wednesday I was watching Kay Pollak's "As it is in Heaven",here in Zagreb
    Georgia,I re-read a lot,sometimes for comfort,even my favourite children books (more before,when there were not so many books to "buy with one click" available). Everytime I find something new and interesting and my thoughts about book,characters, may change. I read very "greedily" first time and I might miss the beauty of the sentence or some hidden thoughts
    Last book I re-read was To kill a Mockingbird,as a preparation for Go,Set a Watchman.
    It was so intense as it was the first time,I was enchanted again

  4. I have thought, and checked the night table, where the emergency books live (in case of disappointment when already tucked in to read). I think it is the literary equivalent of comfort food. So: childhood books, like Dottoressa (Anne, and Little House on the Prairie, and Winnie-the-Pooh), MFK Fisher (for food and Europe), Alice Munroe, Carol Shields, Miriam Toews (Canadian comfort), Jane Austen (in case the ending has changed since last time!), and seasonally, Fitzgerald (summer) and Tolstoy (winter). Mrs. Dalloway is there. Love in the Time of Cholera lives in my car.

    Although said table is a good-sized dresser, there is not room for all of these but they rotate in and out. I read greedily too! And as years go by the stories do mean different things.

  5. Dottoressa, I'm glad you enjoyed it -- and I'd love to see a stage version of Mark Haddon's Incident of the Dog . . . I hadn't heard of this Swedish movie, but I'm going to see if I can find it -- looks like something I'd like.

    Georgia: So great for me to eavesdrop on you and Dottoressa talking about your rereading. . . that's a good list you have. Greedy reading! That's me too, although there are definitely books that I slow right down on and savour carefully -- especially when I know I'll be sad to close the last pages.

  6. As it is in Heaven I've watched was a stage version and I didn't heard about the film till this theatre piece start playing. I'm sure you're going to like it very much