Lucy and Todd

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The Dog — Joseph O’Neill

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on August 23, 2014 at 4:06 pm

He won’t share his name with us, this guy who messes up his boring life as a corporate lawyer in New York by not being in love enough, or at all, with his boring corporate girlfriend. He runs out on her when, after a number of years, she decides she does too want a child. ‘X’ (this is all he’ll reveal of the name he despises) then runs into an old college buddy. (The Dog is full of old college buddies and endless American college backgrounding – sometimes it feels like reading the programme for an alumni weekend.) This once unprepossessing individual is impossibly wealthy. He offers X a ‘write-your-own-ticket’ job acting as ringmaster to his crazily dispersed family: X is to watch out they don’t steal from each other. Instantaneously X finds himself in Dubai, in soulless towers, doing little but evading emails full of impossible demands from the entitled nut-cases he works for, who can’t decide if they want Bryan Ferry or Bryan Adams to come and play for them. He indulges in silly recreations and watches porn – he’s given up on women, apart from prostitutes. He’s the guy for Dubai.

It’s ‘a country of buzz’ with ‘signs to nowhere’. People live in tower blocks called The Situation or The Aspiration, in districts like Privilege Bay. There are fake Victorian pubs and two places called ‘The Unique’. One of the more scintillating characters in this novel – no kidding – is X’s elaborate electronic massage chair. X leaves his office and drives to his flat every noon to defecate and then masturbate. ‘Very few human ideas survive in this implacably sovereign element,’ says X. He’s talking scuba diving, but also about the non-society he’s found himself in – and thereby excusing himself from being anything in this scenario but a suckerfish.

X is the problem with The Dog. He’s narrative poison. From the beginning he reveals himself as a burnt-out case whose moral compass (if he ever had one) is running on auto-pilot. A woman rightly accuses him, and all the western men in Dubai, as having run away. We’re in a too-easy, possibly mildly subversive, male narrative space. One thinks of Fowles: the narrator’s life is ruined, and now he’s going to entertain us by being educated and ironic about it. In Houellebecq you get outrages – and outrage as antidote. In Marías there’s a more accomplished, justifiably paranoid take on the design of the modern world. In Joseph O’Neill’s novel, everything and everyone are so exhausted that nothing can happen.

There’s a lot of cogitating about the internet: thoughts on social media, corporate transparency, and porn, porn, porn. None of these thoughts is very new – X is approximately as interesting as you’d expect the guy next to you in business class to be. The guy you went to university with who understood St Paul and Aristotle better than you did, but just turned out to be a lawyer. As jokily world-weary and existential as the author tries to make X’s philosophising and digressing, this is no mind out of Conrad. Give O’Neill his due – the roaring boredom of his Dubai is so palpable it’s like sticking your head directly into an air conditioner. He wrings every bit of saline humour that he possibly can out of the ultra-rich corporate life. But it’s an effort.

In the end the rich family turn against X. He has been cavalier in the deletion of emails which depress him. (He dreams of having a rubber stamp that reads NOT MY FORTE.) Looking himself up on the web, he finds he is accused of inappropriately touching one of the kids, a criminal, sudoku-playing blob who’s trying to lose weight so as to be rewarded with a sports car. ‘I have trouble identifying a moment,’ says X, ‘about which I can say, At that moment, I certainly had not yet gone under; at that moment, I was on the good ship.’ (How about the day you went to law school, you chump?) X disappears beneath the waves of the luxe culture he thought he could ironise. The problem is that he doesn’t hate it – he should be shouting Dubai down to the ground.

TMcE

A version of this review appeared in The Herald, 23 August 2014

The Prescient Miss Jane Porter

In Stuff We Like on August 9, 2014 at 10:27 am

Bright was the summer of 1296. The war which had desolated Scotland was then at an end. Ambition seemed satiated; and the vanquished, after having passed under the yoke of their enemy, concluded they might wear their chains in peace. Such were the hopes of those Scottish noblemen who, early in the preceding spring, had signed the bond of submission to a ruthless conqueror, purchasing life at the price of all that makes life estimable – liberty and honour.

(The opening of Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs, 1810)