After the titular canines of André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs are miraculously blessed with human intelligence, it’s only a matter of time before one of them uses his newfound powers to crack the first dog joke: “How is a squirrel like a plastic duck? They both squeak when you bite them.”
Hardly worthy of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, but that’s the point. A real joke that humans found funny wouldn’t be funny to dogs. Human intelligence bestowed upon dogs doesn’t fully translate into dogs who think like humans. Here and elsewhere, Alexis’s curious, absorbing novel is full of translational failures — between “changed” dogs and regular dogs, dogs and humans, gods and mortals — that ultimately steer Alexis’s whimsical conceit toward the tragic.
This may sound portentous of a work in which a conniving beagle is taught to read William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (in the pages of which he finds a similarly scheming heroine) or a poodle watches Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story, but the absurdity is always darkened by violence or infused with melancholy. The cineaste poodle, for instance, “could not stand to see so many distant worlds without being able to smell them.” Even aesthetic experience contains a unique form of anguish, a sensory as well as emotional ache.
As if often the case, meddling gods are the root cause of the trouble. Apollo and Hermes are at a Toronto bar, where they are having a few beers and talking about that endlessly fascinating subject (even to deities), humanity. Strolling outside afterwards, they debate whether granting human intelligence to animals would render them happy or unhappy. Apollo wagers that the “change” will make them miserable, Hermes stakes the opposing position, and the two choose 15 dogs inside a vet clinic as their subjects. Atticus, a Neapolitan mastiff dreaming about killing squirrels and rabbits, instantly awakes after having the “vivid and unprecedented” thought that the animals in his jaws might experience pain. With human intelligence comes a sympathetic identification that troubles the pleasure and instincts of doghood.
After the poodle, Majnoun, figures out how to open the cages and doors, 12 of the dogs escape into a world at once “new and marvelous” and “familiar and banal.” The three dogs who choose to remain at the clinic lead unhappy lives, some briefer than others. One whippet and weimaraner mix, already high-strung before “the change,” is tortured by her new awareness of time, “each moment like a scabies mite crawling under her skin.” The eight hours she spends alone while her owners are at work prove too much for the creature, who “chances on a typically human haven from suffering: catatonia,” and is put down shortly thereafter. Score one for Apollo.
The pack sets up a den in a park. Some dogs, obsessed with their old lives, opt to suppress any expressions of their enhanced intelligence and maintain the pack hierarchy the old-fashioned way: through dominance. But no matter how convincingly they behave like unaltered dogs, they remain “dogs imitating dogs:” canine performativity in action, to put it in academese.
Proving that it can make something as well as nothing happen, poetry splinters the pack for good. Language becomes a new tool to secure status, which means it’s also a threat. (In a nice touch, the word for “cat,” is hard to pronounce, “the sound of something caught in the throat”). Prince, the jokester of squeaky toy fame, recites a poem of his own devising and thereby riles up a philistine pack member, who wonders: “[He] had been speaking for speaking’s sake. Could there be a more despicable use for words?” The ensuing dispute leads to a violent, “flawlessly done” purge that forces some dogs to try their luck with human masters.
As if in response to the dogs’ belief that humans are inherently unpredictable, the narrator is determined to remain preternaturally calm. Alexis maintains the same flat tone whether describing brutal canine assaults or a beagle looking on as his master adopts a submissive sexual role with his girlfriend. (The beagle, a “student of dominance,” understands the impulse intuitively.) Alexis is at his best when he enters into the mind of a creature divided between opposing impulses, or zooms in on some dried bird shit to explain its appeal (“hard salad sautéed in goose fat”). The sketchy allegorical passages about society formation and increasingly obtrusive mythological machinery are less successful. But rather than harping on them, best to conclude with a killer one-liner from the pack’s resident jokester:
Why do cats always smell like cats? Oh look! A Squirrel!
Alexis’s conceit, in which dogs are caught between human and canine worlds, in a sense reflects their real-life predicament: dogs are creatures upon whom owners project distinctly human intelligence and emotions. J.R. Ackerley reflects on this phenomenon towards the end of My Dog Tulip, an exquisitely wry and unabashedly sincere love story between a man and his alsatian, his occasionally maddening “imperial bitch.” He reflects on the
strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of men, whose affections they strive endlessly to secure, whose authority they are expected unquestioningly to obey, and whose mind they never can do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend.
Ackerley’s memoir, which makes a nice companion to Fifteen Dogs, recounts the efforts of a man attempting to ease that strain and anxiety and give his dog the fullest possible life. This “full life” includes sex and motherhood, which means that Ackerley must secure her a suitable male. He finds one prospective mate for Tulip, Max, another alsatian who plainly runs the household: “To have offered him any kind of familiarity, it was plain, would have been as shocking a breach of etiquette as if one had attempted to stroke the butler.” Determined not to offend man or beast, Ackerley avoids meeting Max’s eye when he delicately inquires of his owner as to whether the “heavy, handsome” dog is a virgin.
A very British bit of tact, but one that, however comically, speaks to Ackerley’s deep respect for dogs — a respect stemming from his passionate devotion to his own. When Tulip spies Ackerley urinating in the woods and hastens to pee on the same spot, he is ecstatic, interpreting the act as a form of communion: “…I feel that if ever there were differences between us they are washed out now. I feel a proper dog.” However, that extreme identification makes his failures — real or perceived — all the more unbearable. During one of Tulip’s heats, those “cruel” periods in which “the whole of a creature’s sexual desire [is] concentrate[d], like a furnace…into three or four weeks a year,” Ackerley castigates himself for refusing to let her mate. He can’t even meet her gaze:
The look in hers disconcerts me, it contains too much, more than a beast may give, something too clear and too near, too entire, too dignified and direct, a steadier look than my own. I avert my face.
The more intensely the distinguished man of letters identifies with her desires, the more awesome she becomes: neither dog nor human but almost divine in her wisdom.
As the new owner of a basset hound puppy, I can only hope to experience such sublimity. What terrible wisdom, I wonder, will be revealed in those drooping jowls and soulful eyes?