Paul Simon finds Andre Alexis’s new novel a tad too frustrating
Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis (Serpent’s Tail, £7.99)
IF YOU can get past the gnomic title, the design cover reminiscent of the Ladybird series for children and the whole anthropomorphic premise of this book, then Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis is an intriguing if imperfect read.
Its opening line certainly grabs the attention: “One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheatsheaf Tavern.”
What then transpires is that the messenger and the poet, observing the sorry clientele around them and reflecting upon the human propensity for unhappiness, have a wager with each other.
They conspire to give 15 dogs currently impounded at a vets human knowledge and awareness to see if any of them die contented.
The experiment starts badly as three dogs fail to escape in the breakout and soon, after numerous mishaps and murders, their number has been reduced to a handful.
So far so good, but the book is at its most annoying and whimsical in describing the dogs’ bewilderment at learning language, including interpreting that of humans.
At times, it barely raises itself beyond that of a canine Watership Down and elsewhere veers towards an Animal Farm-esque morality tale of bad and good characters.
At such moments, it’s a literary dogs’ dinner.
But when writing of the interactions between the dogs and humans the book is rather more palatable in making much of the confused signals and misinterpretations by either species of the other.
There are passages of humour and a kind of pathos, especially regarding the inner life of the poet dog Prince and even the self-centred beagle, Benjy.
The author provokes us to think more clearly as to the relationships that we construct with other species and especially the fickleness in our own affections with animals that we choose to treat as pets.
Alexis also evokes a wonderfully imagined psychogeography of Toronto, especially the Beach and High Park areas of the city and its places of safety and danger for the fast diminishing pack.
The gardens of death, baited with poisoned food, are both irresistible and lethal to the animals.
Yet, hard as I tried, I just could not keep up the required willing suspension of disbelief for more than a few pages at a time without getting frustrated by, and bored with, the book’s conceit as framed by the author.
If cross-species dramas are your thing, then check out Ovid — he does it better.