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?