When middle aged loner Ray comes across a notice for a dog up for adoption he impulsively acquires this one-eyed pet who quickly becomes his closest companion. The narrative is entirely composed of Ray speaking directly to this dog. He finds it easer to speak to his pet over people because “there’s no need for the weighing and measuring of words, no need to listen to the way they stand in the air after my voice has finished.” This sounds like it might become an achingly sentimental tale, but it turns into a deeply sobering, atmospheric, pain-ridden journey about Ray and his canine companion. It’s not often I’ll enjoy reading a book that withholds so much about its central character – for instance, I had issues with Rachel Cusk’s much-praised novel “Outline.” For the majority of “Spill Simmer Falter Wither” we know little about Ray’s past or circumstances. While learning to care and communicate with his dog, Ray reflects on life and the detritus surrounding him in his dilapidated home. When bits of the past come to the forefront they do so with shocking emotional force since the rest of the narrative is so sedate. The story builds to a sensitive depiction of a deeply lonely existence.
Ray’s persistent focus on the present leads to frequent emotionally-charged dreams which he describes in detail. His unwillingness to reflect back on the past is due to his steadfast choice to remain consciously ignorant about his own family life. He reasons that it is “better to be content with ignorance, I’ve always thought, than haunted by the truth.” Equally, he avoids any chance at difficult confrontations. So when his dog attacks another dog (and possibly a young child) Ray flees his own home with the dog rather than face having his pet confiscated by the authorities. The majority of the book is made up of his directionless travels, squatting in his car and the people/things he encounters on their journey. He fears being held to account for his dog’s actions just as he fears facing the truth about his family and his past so he wanders around the fringes of society, but always remains attentively observant.
This is a profoundly solemn novel. What redeems it from being bogged down in its own misery is the beauty of Baume’s writing and the tender depiction of Ray’s care for his dog. The author never sentimentalizes this relationship. There is a lot of detail about the grit and griminess of living (especially in the enclosed environment of a car.) Whenever Ray comes close to speculating that his dog might possess some deeper understanding, the reality of their situation and his dog’s instinctive reactions repositions their connection safely back in reality. There is something refreshing about the way Ray staunchly refuses to view his life through any kind of religious or cinematic perspective as a way of consoling himself that he belongs in the world. He remarks “No one is watching us. Nobody even knows where we are.” This is the bare, cold truth of reality when we have no loved ones, family connections, community or god. This is a man unafraid to acknowledge his extreme hermetic existence, find he has no place in the world and carry on living regardless. However, his guardianship of the dog over the course of a year gives his life new meaning and ultimately allows him to acknowledge and put his past to rest.