Wednesday, December 04, 2019

98. Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

It's a Canadian dog story double rock block!  Fifteen Dogs is written 63 years after The Wild Dog of Edmonton, which was my previous read.  I think that a detailed analysis and comparison of the two would probably yield fruitful knowledge about the state of literature and dogs in Canada.  However, I do not have the time nor the inclination to do more than scratch the surface of this rich topic.

Fifteen Dogs is a winner of a bunch of Canadian awards and was a contestant (and maybe even the winner?) of Canada Reads.  These awards tend to bias me against a book, as I can only guess at the maze of politics and cronyism the author must make his or her way through to get here as well as the even more precarious balance of interesting yet safe content the book itself must contain.  For instance, the blurb on the back calls it "meditative and devastating".  Devastating alone would have been too risky.  And even worse, "Fifteen Dogs shows you can teach an old genre new tricks."  You can almost hear the anxiety of the editor, "make it super clear that this isn't a genre book!"

So yeah, many strikes against it before I even cracked the cover.  On the positive side, it was recommended by a friend whose opinion I respect and it was printed on acid-free paper from second growth forests here in Quebec.  I do like Canadian things and will support the Canadian book industry.  I just wish it would stop being so insecure and pretentious!

The story here is really clever.  It's basically a greek myth.  Apollo and Hermes are drinking in a brewpub in Toronto (this scene is quite funny: the Gods and Canadian beer) and make a bet that if they give dogs intelligence will they die happy or sad?  They choose fifteen dogs who happen to be staying overnight at a vet near the brewpub and bless them with intelligence.  The dogs quickly escape and most of the rest of the book is about what happens to them.

It's interesting, though I found it much more meditative then devastating.  There is not as much narrative as there is exploration of what intelligence would mean to a dog and what they do with it.  Some embrace it, others reject it and this causes a schism that turns quite nasty.  Alexis does a creative job of imagining how the nature of a dog would mesh with human-level intelligence.  They certainly don't become human.  In the end, as more and more of the dogs die and the bet remains inconclusive, the gods start to meddle.  All the stuff with the gods was really clever and well crafted.  It fit in perfectly with the stories of the Greek gods I loved in D'Aulaire as a child.  It's also kind of a downer.  The book was quite dark and sad for most of it.

Interestingly for such a divergent approach to a dog's life, both Fifteen Dogs and The Wild Dog of Edmonton portray the perspective of the dog on the run in a very similar fashion.  The dogs running around Canadian neighbourhoods, looking for food, shelter and figuring out which humans may provide that while always remaining wary was very consistent across both books. That's as deep as my analysis goes. 

So while I generally avoid "literary fiction", I will give Fifteen Dogs a moderate two thumbs up.  I am not sure if I got anything deep about the human condition from it, but I cared about the dogs and enjoyed the story. 

There is one small yet glaring error.  At the very end, there is a scene in Ralston, Alberta.  It says "It was a late afternoon in Summer. The sun had just begun to cede its ground to darkness."  I don't think Alexis has actually been in Alberta in the summer, because the sun I am pretty sure would be high in the sky in the late afternoon.  Is this not the case across Canada?

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