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A slight but carefully written ‘The Dog’ by Joseph O’Neill

The Dog

By Joseph O’Neill

Pantheon

256 pages, $25.95

By Ed Taylor

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Not a linear descendant of Melville’s Bartleby but a distant cousin, “X,” the Swiss-American protagonist of Irish-American writer Joseph O’Neill’s fourth novel (the character’s hated real-name’s initial an emblem of the character’s anonymity) is an upper middle-class invisible who would prefer not to – get involved, be responsible, commit, cause offense. He does have hopes and fears, even dreams, and a tender soul, but he’s a very lawyerly 30-ish lawyer who mainly just wants to be left alone to swim instead of sink under the world’s big hairy hand that’s pushing him under. And he’s tiring.

“I learned that the undersea world may be a near pure substitute for the world from which one enters it. I cannot help pointing out that this substitution has the effect of limiting what might be termed the biographical import of life – the momentousness to which one’s every drawing of breath seems damned. To be, almost without metaphor, a fish in water: what liberation.”

This is from the book’s first paragraph, actually discussing a scuba dive. And while X craves submerging as escape, what he’s facing is drowning.

“The Dog” is an amusing, wry, pleasingly odd and slightly slight work of burnished prose and careful emotional spelunking driven by first-person voice and character – those of X – and setting, which is Dubai. While there’s a lot of sound and fury from within X’s consciousness, there’s not a ton of external action. Although the book does begin with X underwater in the Red Sea, things become more mundane almost immediately. Most of the action in the book involves sitting in offices and hotels and apartments, in cars and one yacht, in X’s expensive Pasha massage chair, in cafes and restaurants, in bars.

X lives in his head – a kind of retreat, possibly a negative one. Speaking of which, the unspoken metaphor referenced by the title (not mentioned in the text itself) is dog-ness and the doghouse; and here, all the ways affluent, educated, privileged expats are existentially not much different from, say, the virtual indentured servants who make possible the fairy tale life promised by Dubai, a Xanadu in the desert attracting money from around the world, a place where the rich go to play out a fantasy not possible in nominally democratic societies elsewhere. There’s power and privilege, then there’s the real power and privilege that kicks around the other kind like, well, a dog.

X is a highly paid and educated servant, in effect, and one existing, like every other foreign national in Dubai, on a knife edge of money – if you’re employed, you’re golden. If you’re not, you are not even in the doghouse – you lose residency, visa, assets and whatever life you’ve made there. Every privilege disappears, and your only recourse is to leave the country, if you are lucky enough to not become the subject of a pro forma criminal investigation that hastens your departure.

This aspect of the fiction is not fiction – Dubai is a dark and troubling place under the glitter of the Burj Khalifa and the emirate’s astounding ambition, and it is this place that is the antagonist here, in the way that, say, a novel about an old man and the sea will be about the sea as much as the old man. Dubai allows unlimited freedom for those who are powerful enough to be beyond hiring and firing, or for those who are merely rich tourists. For the “dog” class, from the well-paid lawyers and professional functionaries such as X who manage things, to the “bidoons,” undocumented immigrant drivers and servers and maids, any freedom can disappear with the speed of a text.

The Sparknotes for the novel might be – yuppie millennial endures catastrophic breakup, seeks a new life and ends up in Dubai thanks to a chance encounter with a rich former college roommate. Then things don’t go as planned.

Unfortunately, maybe at least with a hint of cliché, cherchez le femme – a major reason for X’s current skittish existential diffidence and semi-exile is a woman, his ex. The tangled skein of their relation and X’s tortured reliving of it are an ongoing plot element, the tentpole supporting the narrative. Another plot thread involves the tricky work of his Dubai job, as factotum for the Butroses, an international family of 1 percenters – father and two sons – with millions and interests around the world. Beyond reason and ethics, the Butroses like others of their species are almost Caligulan in their mercurial moods, ruthlessness, narcissism, and opaque morality. It’s like working with a bear – you never know how close you can safely get, or what to predict.

The third major plot element and extended metaphor is a man: Ted Wilson, a will o’the wisp advertising and marketing maven from America and legendary diver in the expatriate scuba diving community who’s gone missing and, it turns out, has two wives. His life and his disappearance haunt X in a variety of ways long after the rest of the expats have moved on to the next scandal of the day.

O’Neill gives X the verbal facility of a really smart lawyer and the self-awareness of a David Foster Wallace character, and the narrative advances via long blocks of text that are astoundingly constructed parenthetical asides, exegeses of thoughts and statements and observations, long logico-philosophical self-footnotes and addendums and lists and syllogisms. However, this verbosity is wonderfully light-footed and funny, and frequently poignant. X in spite of his painful fecklessness and diffidence is a good-hearted and sympathetic companion.

And, when the bear inevitably snarls and swats, and X faces an end to the various ropes he has clung to, he takes a quiet stand: one that is Bartleby-esque – or Kafka-esque – in its acknowledgement of the giant machinery of oligarchic private power and, here, a semi-despotic client government, grinding in ways most of us only faintly sense and only by the grace of luck are not crushed by. X walks on his own power to the doghouse that is his fate.

Ed Taylor is a Buffalo freelance writer, professor of literature at SUNY Buffalo State and author of the novel “Theo.”