Twenty-five years ago, I worked at a law school (the one where I would eventually get my degree). One of my co-workers revealed one day that he had changed his last name when he became an adult because his real last name was so horrible he couldn’t stand it anymore. No amount of pleading on my part could get him to reveal what this horrible name was. To this day, I can only speculate about what his childhood last name was.
Some years later, I worked with a woman who would not reveal her maiden name. No amount of pleading … yada, yada, yada. Then one day, I met her brother and eventually put two and two together. Her maiden name was the same as a relatively well-known porn star.
Which leads me to The Dog by Joseph O’Neill. Here’s the Amazon blurb:
***A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK***
***LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2014***
***PWs Best of the Year 2014***
The author of the best-selling and award-winning Netherland now gives us his eagerly awaited, stunningly different new novel: a tale of alienation and heartbreak in Dubai.
Distraught by a breakup with his long-term girlfriend, our unnamed hero leaves New York to take an unusual job in a strange desert metropolis. In Dubai at the height of its self-invention as a futuristic Shangri-la, he struggles with his new position as the “family officer” of the capricious and very rich Batros family. And he struggles, even more helplessly, with the “doghouse,” a seemingly inescapable condition of culpability in which he feels himself constantly trapped—even if he’s just going to the bathroom, or reading e-mail, or scuba diving. A comic and philosophically profound exploration of what has become of humankind’s moral progress, The Dog is told with Joseph O’Neill’s hallmark eloquence, empathy, and storytelling mastery. It is a brilliantly original, achingly funny fable for our globalized times.
The book has 62 ratings on Amazon, with an average rating of 2.9, making it the lowest rated book I’ve read since I started reading books on the New Times Notable Books of 2014 List. There are ten five star reviews and 15 one star reviews! I have never seen such a thing — more one star reviews than five star reviews.
But first, let me go back to my original point. The story is told in first person. The narrator never reveals his name, nor is it revealed through dialogue. In places, he makes reference to the horror of his first name and there is a lot of indication that he is using an alias in Dubai. The problem is, for me, that it just comes across as an unnecessary gimmick, which ultimately is what the entire book comes across as. One meandering mess of a gimmick.
There are plenty of great books that revolve around gimmicks. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is narrated by a dog. Everything Matters involves a narrator who is told at birth the exact moment when the world will end. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak includes this thing where he describes somebody saying something and the words almost taking physical shape in the air and doing something in the space the characters are in. I loved all of these books, so I’m not anti-gimmick. The thing is that I actually want to see a story in there and not feel like “the story” is the gimmick.
There’s an interesting review excerpt on the back of the book. According to Publishers Weekly, “Pitch perfectd prose … clever, witty, and profoundly insightful, this is a beautifully crafted narrative about a man undone by a soulless society.” I’m pretty sure Publishers Weekly and I read different books. The only soulless being in the book is the narrator. Maybe I’m just dense and didn’t “get it,” but without reading the negative reviews on Amazon, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be agreeing with them. Maybe it’s me, this book apparently is ironic and satirical and … funny. I didn’t see the irony and the satire and the funny. What I saw was a narcissistic narrator who was completely and totally unlikeable.
And, here’s another thing. One of the fundamental rules of writing I have been told over and over again is that how you start your story is critical. You must grab the reader’s attention immediately. I’m not entirely sold on that, but I do think the opening words can tell a lot about a story.
Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer opening line: TOM!
Toni Morrison’s Beloved opening line: 124 was spiteful.
Stephen King’s The Shining opening line: Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.
Ron Currie Jr.’s Everything Matters opening line: First, enjoy this time!
Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog opening line: Perhaps because of my growing sense of the inefficiency of life lived on land and in air, of my growing sense that the accumulation of experience amounts, when all is said and done and pondered, simply to extra weight, so that one ends up dragging oneself around as if imprisoned in one of those Winnie the Pooh suits of explorers of the deep, I took up diving.
Is it me, or does anybody else see the problem. Truth is that this opening sentence says everything there is to say about the book. Somewhere around 2/3 of the way through the thing, I got to a paragraph that went on for two and a half pages.
I’ll leave it at this. The book sucked.
Which leads me to one more topic for discussion. Do critics look for something different than readers? Earlier this week I was talking about my little review project with a couple of work colleagues. When I told them how much I was struggling to find books on the list that I enjoyed, they were surprised, but then we got down to it. Readers read to read, I believe. They want to be entertained. Sometimes they want their mental muscles to be stretched a bit. But ultimately it is about entertaining and escaping for those hours you read a book. Many readers also want the comfort of the familiar. Hence, the success of authors who write series based on the same character or characters and authors who write to a formula. Dean Koontz is a wonderful example of this. Readers like familiarity.
Critics have a completely different thing they’re looking for. Something different. Something different. Something different. There I said it. You have to write something different to get their attention. If it’s not different, it isn’t creative. It isn’t art. It isn’t special. It isn’t worthy of their time or their praise. And so they put together their lists and their high ratings for books that average readers likely have absolutely no interest in.
I’ll say this, I’m waiting for the book on this list that makes me want to read the rest of the author’s catalog of books. Other than the very first book I read, All Our Names, I haven’t got even close to that ideal. It’s a shame that the Notable Books of 2014 are so unlikeable.