Reviewed by John Delacourt
In the opening chapter of Andre Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, the author drops two Greek gods down from the heavens into one of the older, storied bars in Toronto, the Wheat Sheaf Tavern. Hermes, dressed in black leather jacket, and Apollo, with a hipster’s shaggy beard, get into a long conversation about the value of human intelligence. After drinking five Sleemans each they wager “a year’s servitude” on whether animals would die happily or unhappily if they had this gift of ours that sets us so apart. The particular beasts they settle on to test this out are, of course, the dogs of the title, found a short walk from the Wheat Sheaf in a veterinary clinic. And so the fable begins.
There is a canny author’s wisdom rather than whimsy at work here in Alexis’ slim, elegantly written novel. The human qualities of reflection, along with our language and symbol making abilities, hardly seem as sudden blessings at all in the context of the dogs’ terms of existence. In dramatizing the moments of harsh realization visited upon them each after their transformation, a tragic, deeply affecting vision gradually comes into focus.
With such a large cast, it is a feat in of itself that Alexis manages to orchestrate, with a symphonic intelligence, the various lines of action and negotiate each tonal shift without dissipating the momentum of the novel.
There are particular dogs whose qualities inevitably beg (sorry) to be foregrounded, however, and Alexis has a seasoned novelist’s understanding of how to make richer themes emerge and flourish with their particular stories. There is Prince, the mongrel who discovers poetic gifts with his transformation, and Majnoun, the poodle who becomes attuned to a deeper connection with Nira, one of the humans he lives with. Alexis is not constrained by the fable form in honing on acutely observed emotional truths; here is all the nuance and complexity these episodes demand.
There are also, true to the form of the apologue, (roughly defined as a brief, allegorical fable) episodes that resonate as profound meditations on our understanding of the other. One of the dogs, Atticus the mastiff, can sense that the canine is dying in him, so he creates a code of rigid precepts for the others to follow. For those dogs who can no longer conform to Atticus’ rule, all the grim business of violence, exclusion and exile plays out on the in-between beings, cursed with the understanding that there is no return to some essential animal state. What is worse, for these dogs any refuge found in the world of the humans proves to be precarious at best. Yes, there is nothing twee and comforting here; the gods may have touched these characters, but it is really in Atticus’ world where they have to survive. How timeless –and how contemporary.
That said, if one is to believe that there is a dominant narrative mode that the ‘successful’ contemporary novel typifies, Fifteen Dogs really should not work. Alexis’ writing is clearly free of any anxiety about artifice, overt patterning or the influences of European storytelling. He seamlessly integrates a poetic strategy invented by the late French author and OULIPO member François Caradec and inserts a series of “poems for dogs” throughout the text where the name of each one is audible – presumably to both master and human. Even more impressive, if not quite formally as flashy, is Alexis’ ability of ‘making strange’ by evoking the sensual world of the dogs by concentrating on smells and sounds over vision. From its high concept premise (inspired by Pasolini’s Teorema, according to Alexis) to the epigrammatic beauty of Alexis’ paragraphs, Fifteen Dogs betrays an erudition and craft that would allegedly consign a work like this to the margins now. What might pass us by if that were truly the case.
Fifteen Dogs is published by Coach House Books.