As with every year, the release of the Booker longlist introduces me to authors I probably wouldn't have read otherwise. This is Joseph O'Neill's fourth published novel but I haven't read any of his previous work.

The narrator of “The Dog” gives up his life working in a US law firm to reside in Dubai. He’s employed by the wealthy Batros family as an individual they can trust. That trust involves coordinating the management of their wealth, but also making absurd arrangements for celebrities to appear at private events and monitoring the weight loss of a wayward nephew of the family. More than usefully putting his legal prowess to their affairs, the narrator spends most of his time trying to dodge responsibility like a modern version of Melville’s Bartleby. He wants to excuse himself from responsibility wafting away email enquiries with the standard response “NOT MY FORTE” and affixes ink stamps to any document he signs to make it more impersonal and have an officious distance from it. He muses about life in Dubai and reflects back on the disintegration of his relationship with his partner Jenn. Although he seems to be someone who thrives on being an alien in an alien land, he receives a stark reminder that he does not truly belong when he takes a moral stance and things go wrong in the Batros' company.

O’Neill’s unnamed narrator is obsessively ponderous. His frequent microscopic examination of the details of life whether it’s completing Sudoku puzzles or the daily exercise of running up a stairwell is very reminiscent of Nicholson Baker’s writing. Here the minutiae of behaviour is shone in a spotlight so that the absurdity of human foibles and the small tragedies of moment to moment existence is revealed. There are lines of rattling analytical detail which investigate with a fine-toothed comb the multitude of meanings behind things such as advertisements, Emirates’ law or a massage chair. For instance, when he receives treatment with a new foot care gel he reflects: “I’d been lulled into a soporific feeling of all going well in the world, of clever men and women in unseen laboratories toiling and tinkering and steadily solving our most disastrous mysteries, of benign systems gaining in efficiency, of our species progressively attaining a technical dimension of consciousness, of a deep and hitherto undisclosed algorithm of optimal human endeavour coming at last within the grasp of the good-doing intelligences of corporations and universities and governments and NGOs, of mankind’s most resilient intellectual/moral/economic foes being routed forever and the blockheads and bashibazouks and baboons running for the hills once and for all.” He extrapolates all this from simply getting softer, better-smelling feet. The point being that we're continually lulled into believing that each mark of civilization carries behind it the workings of a prosperous, well-ordered and just society. However, the narrator isn't convinced. He's wracked with guilt about the injust distribution of wealth leading him to chase anonymous, unseen cleaners down back corridors in a desperate attempt to tip them. The narrator's stubborn refusal to subsume himself within the order of larger systems becomes his undoing.

Mindful of the belief that the world is becoming a more homogenized place, I think what the author is trying to get at in this novel is the way individuals become increasingly dislocated and lost within it. The Dubai O'Neill writes about carries great symbolic weight as a kind of liminal space: “Dubai’s undeclared mission is to make itself indistinguishable from its airport.” It's a clean, stringently-ordered place, somewhere that people are always passing through. People are neither here nor there. The city contains a number of people who are Bidoon or “a stateless person, i.e., a person who is everywhere illegally present.” The environment of the city itself is always in a state of flux with frequent construction making it so disorientating cab drivers always get lost. Huge construction sites are sometimes left as nothing more than giant holes in the ground although the online presence of the project images show an ideal, complete building. The city's Westin hotel has the tagline “Between Being and Becoming.” Existence here is lived in the between. As such the narrator never feels an established sense of identity. The eponymous dog of the title refers to an animal that is not really welcome anywhere in Dubai and, in a sense, this is the kind of animal the narrator becomes.

The most potent symbol of our supposed connectedness as a global community is the internet. As such the narrator naturally turns to it for answer as he describes here: “I took it upon myself to visit websites dedicated to modern psychological advances and to drop in on discussion sites where, with an efficacy previously unavailable in the history in human endeavour, one might receive the benefit of the wisdom, experience and learning of a self-created global network or community of those most personally and ideally interested in humiliation, and in this way stand on the shoulders of a giant and, it followed, enjoy an unprecedented panorama of the subject. I cannot say that it turned out as I’d hoped.” Although the internet strives to be a utopian plain of encyclopaedic knowledge it is more often a jumble of unverified facts, poor logic, strident opinions and misdirected emotion. He eventually finds his name has been slandered online so that the top searches show a series of insults. Although the narrator purports not to engage in any social media, he comments on the unique way people engage within the medium: “They made common their feelings. They grew. They rooted for and bore sympathetic and useful witness to the others as, one by one, each made her or his way along life’s rocky path, facing en route the loneliness, discouragement and pain that are the inevitable and persistent highwaymen of our ways.” The result of interacting this way is far from ideal as evidenced by the way the narrator investigates the social media activities of a missing man named Ted Wilson. Outpourings of support lead to vicious defamatory campaigns from a stream of unnamed individuals when certain facts about Ted are made public. Here O'Neill shows that one's online existence is often a poor approximation of the way one actually lives.

The style of writing in “The Dog” matches this particular narrator. His particular kind of stream of consciousness results in a page of digressions that eventually collapse into a jumble of closing parenthesis. In other sections he accumulates a list which continuously refers back to earlier statements like a legal document. It’s an endless accumulation of questions and counterpoint arguments that leave him feeling discouraged rather than more self-aware. This style illuminates the systematic way people go about tackling any problems in modern life. The rapid accumulation of detail leads to a train of information which crashes at a point of no solution, a pile-up of information.

This is most often a comedic novel that also contemplates the meaning of dislocation in a modern global society and online communities. Early on the narrator becomes enthusiastic about diving where “Very few human ideas survive in this implacably sovereign element; one finds oneself in a world devoid not only of air but of symbols, which are of course a kind of air.” He's attracted to this underwater environment because everything means what it is here. Things aren't attached with sublimated messages. You can simply float. In an increasingly fast-paced, commercialized world O'Neill's narrator faces a kind of existential crisis. With a sense of melancholy he reflects: “It may be that most lives add up, in the end, to the sum of the mistakes that cannot be corrected.” If you were to form a crib sheet on the narrator of “The Dog” his life would look like a disaster, but the spirit he shows in his narrative reveals an individual desperately trying to sort and reason and make the right choices. It makes for a fascinating and funny read.

Read an interview with the author here:

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJoseph O'Neill