There’s something almost otherworldly about the city of Dubai, with its “seven star” Burj Al Arab Hotel and the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. If only for that reason, a work of fiction that attempts to capture the essence of this exotic setting might be expected to tilt toward the unconventional. Joseph O’Neill’s novel, THE DOG, an extended and elaborate stream-of-consciousness narrative, fits that description. And while it doesn’t lack for cleverness and a certain acid wit, those qualities aren’t enough to overcome its static plot and the claustrophobic feeling that comes from inhabiting its narrator’s unattractive mind.
O’Neill’s unnamed narrator is a Swiss-born expatriate American lawyer who has fled a nine-year “quasi-marriage” he describes as “a living death for me,” abandoning what he frequently refers to as a “one-bedroom rent-stabilized apartment” for a “luxury rental by the Lincoln Tunnel” before making his way to Dubai. A college friend, Eddie Batros, hires him to serve as the Batros Family Officer, overseeing a vast family fortune in a job that involves little more than “a couple of stressful hours of e-paperwork in the morning and an afternoon spent stressfully waiting around in case something should come up.” Relying on an elaborate system of stamps and embossers, he is preoccupied with insulating himself from liability, confessing that “A lot of the time I’m signing off on stuff that, to be perfectly honest, I barely, if at all, understand.”
"O’Neill’s self-absorbed narrator is someone with whom it might be enjoyable to spend an evening at a bar, but by the end of this lengthy encounter, we leave his company with a sense of relief."
These responsibilities are so undemanding that one of his principal tasks involves babysitting the adolescent son of Eddie’s brother, Sandros. The boy, who’s seriously obese, is weighed daily by the narrator’s assistant, Ali, one of the tens of thousands of bidoons, or undocumented workers, whose low wage labor, rendered amid the constant fear of deportation, fuels a Dubai economy that’s sputtering in the midst of the financial crisis that darkens the novel’s time frame (2007 through 2011). The narrator is also free to spend large stretches of time in his plush apartment at a high rise called The Situation, where he luxuriates in his Pasha Royale X400™ massage chair, surfs the Internet for pornography and relishes his encounters with prostitutes from assorted former Soviet republics.
While the “dog” of the novel’s title refers to the “doghouse built by me, with my name on it,” that he says was his life with Jenn Horschel, his former lover, it might equally refer to the way the narrator gnaws away at various aspects of his past as if they were bones, albeit of a notably unappetizing sort. Repeatedly, he revisits his relationship with Jenn, a fellow (and more successful) attorney in his old law firm. “I could choose to be a good man or choose to be a bad man,” he says, coolly analyzing his decision to abandon Jenn in the middle of her effort to conceive through in vitro fertilization. He’s equally obsessed with the state of a construction project adjacent to his apartment in a city that’s “an abracadabrapolis in which buildings flopped against each other and skyscrapers looked wobbly or were rumpled or might be twice as tall and slender as the Empire State Building.”
A subplot involves the story of Ted Wilson, an American professor and avid scuba diver, another one of the narrator’s numerous diversions. Wilson’s disappearance cloaks him in an atmosphere of mystery, fueled by rumors that he’s a bigamist, but this story line, like much of what passes for plot in the novel, is never satisfactorily resolved.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the book is the circuitous quality of O’Neill’s prose. His narrator is especially fond of parenthetical phrases, concluding one paragraph in this fashion: )))))). After a meticulous rumination, featuring 22 numbered observations, about his encounter with a woman who may be one of Ted Wilson’s wives, the narrator concludes, “This is the kind of thing that passes for my moment-to-moment inner life. It’s discouraging.” It's a challenge to maintain our engagement in this kind of complex, ruminative narrative, something Mohsin Hamid was able to do in HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA, a novel that bears at least a superficial resemblance to this one, but O’Neill fails to meet it.
What resolution there is to the plot, while perhaps not completely predictable, is consistent with the life that’s described so exhaustively in the pages of this novel. O’Neill’s self-absorbed narrator is someone with whom it might be enjoyable to spend an evening at a bar, but by the end of this lengthy encounter, we leave his company with a sense of relief.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 12, 2014
- Publication Date: September 9, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Pantheon
- ISBN-10: 0307378233
- ISBN-13: 9780307378231