Book Review: Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis

My stalled Book Bingo challenge is not going very well. But while I am not exactly reading suggested books on the bingo card, it has spurred me to read more Canadian speculative fiction, which I suppose is the point. So not an entire fail.

This month my local book club is reading Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis. We are reading it at my suggestion, as it was the winner for CBC’s annual contest, Canada Reads, and it sounded intriguing to me.

Fifteen Dogs is a speculative fiction novel that has a fairly basic, but interesting, premise. Two Greek gods, Apollo and Hermes, decide to grant fifteen dogs human consciousness to see if it will bring the dogs happiness or misery.

I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence. 

I wonder if they’d be as unhappy as humans, Apollo answered.

 Some humans are unhappy; others aren’t. Their intelligence is a difficult gift. 

 I’ll wager a year’s servitude, said Apollo, that animals – any animal you choose – would be even more unhappy than humans are if they had human intelligence. 

 An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.

The fifteen dogs are chosen at random, they are ones at a nearby veterinarian’s clinic, and the story follows the exploits of the dogs as they begin to cope with having human consciousness.

I love dogs, and I love stories about dogs and stories that have dog narrators. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, is one of my favourite books. And while I knew that Fifteen Dogs was more likely to be an exploration of what it meant to be human as opposed to what it means to be a dog, I still had high hopes that it would be one that I would really enjoy.

Unfortunately, not so much. In fact, I can honestly say I only finished it because we were reading it for book club.

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To start with the positive, though, the writing in the book is excellent. The prose is lyrical, and he does a good job of pulling all the stories of the dogs together, without making it too confusing.  The concept is an intriguing one, but the execution of it just doesn’t work for me.

This is a very depressing book. Alexis focusses on the negative aspects of humanity and dogs both, and I don’t think he gets the dog interactions exactly right, either. He sets his pack up using the concept of alpha and submissive dogs, which, although a very popular way of looking at dog psychology and behaviour, is becoming more and more outdated.*

So, marrying the idea of pack theory with humanity’s predilection for murder, greed, cheating, and selfishness makes for a very gloomy read indeed. Yes, the book is also a meditation on language, poetry, status, and power. And there are good points to ponder in the book about all those. But I just couldn’t get past my heartaches for the poor dogs to really appreciate them.

[SPOIER ALERT}

There is a lot of death in this book. Most of the dogs don’t make it out of the first few chapters. And like those dogs, the remaining ones die horrible deaths, especially the last one, due to interference by the gods, as Zeus tries to make something right but ends up making it worse.

Just as I quibble with the author’s understanding of dog behaviour, I quibble with his understanding of humanity. I will not argue with him that humanity is flawed, and that people do terrible things to each other. One can’t look at the nightly news and not come out believing otherwise.

But that is not all we are. And in my opinion, this book, which supposedly asks a question about  what it means to be human, only gives us part of the answer.

My rating: two stars out of five. One star for the excellent writing, one for the concept.


*if you are interested, here are a couple of articles about this.

https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/14_12/features/Alpha-Dogs_20416-1.html

https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/dog-behavior-and-training-dominance-alpha-and-pack-leadership-what-does-it-really-mean

 

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