I don’t often review books on this blog. That’s because I seldom read fiction and my reading of non-fiction runs to extreme esoterica, sociological monographs and art books few of which inspire me to produce reviews. Too much explaining to do. Too much I have to leave unsaid or to the reader’s initiative.
Upon the urging of my widely read Carolyn spouse, I relented and read a novel, Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, published this year by Coach House Books. It won the Giller Prize and Carolyn said to me: “Read it, I want to discuss it with you.” Well, that’s not the first time she’s said that, but for some reason I relented this time, partly because she said the book was about death, a long time scholarly interest of mine. It’s not a long book either, another reason why I decided to read it.
That said, I can’t say that this is a review of the book. It’s more of a meditation on it.
The book’s premise is simple enough. Hermes and Apollo, both gods in the ancient Greek panoply of gods find themselves in a bar in Toronto when at some point Hermes muses: “I wonder what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.” Thereupon, Apollo responds with: “I’ll wager a year’s servitude that animals, any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.”
Sometime later they encounter fifteen dogs in a kennel at the back of an animal clinic nearby. They had found the subjects for their experiment. I’m not going to go into any detail describing the chains of events that constitute this novel, but you can see where this might lead. Dogs don’t have the vocal apparatus to speak human language, but they can, given human intelligence, develop a language of their own which they do in this case.
One major issue is that physiologically these dogs are still dogs and they still have dog wants and needs as well as dog perceptions of things. Now, with human intelligence, complications inevitably arise. Deaths ensue. Let’s not forget that one of the primary distinctions in this novel is between mortals (dogs and humans) and immortals (Hermes, Apollo and Zeus). Us planetary beings are all mortal, something we have in common. Dogs and humans die. We all do. We all must. Moreover, dogs and humans often have reasons to kill. The dog/humans in this novel are no exception to this rule.
Here we have a mix of dog/human politics as if human politics weren’t complicated enough. Dog politics are generally straightforward based on brute strength, physical size and cleverness when it comes to intra-pack politics and no mercy when it comes to extra-pack relations. Not much different than human politics, it seems.
Much of the book is taken up with discussions about morality, mortality and making it through the day in hostile, and sometimes friendly but constricting, environments. Fifteen Dogs is full of the unexpected yet explainable. It does not shy away from visceral descriptions of death but it also revels in the more uplifting connections we make between ourselves as humans as well as those between humans and dogs. I’ve loved all of our dogs as family members. I can certainly relate to this book on that level, but I can also find basic truths in Alexis’ musings on the inevitability of mortality and what it means to live well and die well.
I recommend this book to you all. It’s a quick read and one that could give rise to great book club conversation.
One question I have: how would this book read if the gods in question were not so mythical? What if there was only one god in question, the Christian god? How would that change the colour, tone and texture of the book? How would it change the book?