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Steven Boykey Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Book Review – The Dog by Joseph O’Neill

 

A few months ago The Guardian presented their ‘big fiction’ books – those that were eagerly anticipated and imminently hitting the stores. One of those was The Dog by Joseph O’Neill.  When I told people I had bought it they waxed all misty and lyrical about Netherland, O’Neill’s award-winner from a few years ago, which I had not read. This included my wife Kate, who wrote a mini-review on the Good Book Appreciation Society  comparing The Dog to Netherland.

So O’Neill was virgin territory for me. Let me start by saying that there is one famous editor on this site (Helen Moffet?) who is very strict about every single line of the books she edits having to drive the narrative/story forward. Not only do the sentences in The Dog not move the story forward, there is no story to talk of. I suspect she would throw this book across the room with extreme prejudice, and then use it for kindling.

And then there are the 4-page unbroken paragraphs. And the embedded ramblings within parentheses, repeatedly nested so that some paragraphs end with )))))) (yes, SIX brackets). And really, really long sentences (I counted one at random – it was 150 words, where the average in novels is  10 – 15).  And the extremely dense tangential thoughts on everything and anything. And all telling and no showing. And no plot (although I suppose there is a narrative of sorts, and an unexpected metamorphosis at the end)

Did I hate this book for all these reasons, and more (its landscape was even further littered with other skewered and bloodied novelistic/linguistic sacred cows)?

No, I fell hopelessly in love with it. Lawyer breaks up with long term partner in the US, takes a soulless job in soulless Dubai via an old college buddy from an impossibly rich family. He is put to work doing life-crushing tax and legal structuring for his friend’s family’s endless global empire . Our hapless protag rarely leaves his cold and rich apartment in one Dubai’s endless skyscrapers, except to go to a similarly soulless office. He hires and befriends Russian prostitutes. He ruminates on his failed relationship. He writes angry mental emails to his boss, which he never sends (a doff of the hat to Bellow’s Herzog). He puzzles and fantasises over the disappearance of a colleague. He endlessly rehashes his failed relationship. He masturbates to online porn. He ruminates some more. And then some more. Then he muses on his ruminations. Then he meta-muses to the point of circularity.

There are times when the narrative and ranting are so convoluted and labyrinthine and recursive that you want so whack O’Neill upside the head and ask – why are you doing this to me? And then you find yourself gasping with surprise, or spluttering with mirth (often) or dazzled by original thinking and insight. (Insight! Insight! Isn’ t that why we read books?). At one point he filibusters about Facebook – it is as breathtakingly funny and perceptive as anything you will ever read about our brave new digital world.

Geoff Dyer, a great writer who had a series of lectures here recently made known that his favorite sort of novel is a series of essays hung on the thinnest of plots. The Dog is exactly that -  the plot so thin as to be invisible, the ‘essays’ are rich and gloriously funny and surprising and profound. This book was a strange journey indeed, but the scenery was startling and alien and satisfying.

 

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