FIFTEEN DOGS, by Andre Alexis, Coach House Books, 2015, 171pp
Fifteen Dogs was this week awarded the Giller Prize. The jury said:
What does it mean to be alive? To think, to feel, to love and to envy? André Alexis explores all of this and more in the extraordinary Fifteen Dogs, an insightful and philosophical meditation on the nature of consciousness. It’s a novel filled with balancing acts: humour juxtaposed with savagery, solitude with the desperate need to be part of a pack, perceptive prose interspersed with playful poetry. A wonderful and original piece of writing that challenges the reader to examine their own existence and recall the age old question, what’s the meaning of life?
In a refreshingly short 171 pages, Mr. Alexis packs as much — if not more — existential punch, metaphysical rumination, and philosophical insight as are contained in some novels that are 900 exasperatingly long pages — not to mention any names (you can click here if you must know) — but after having just finished one such behemoth of a fiction, I was delighted, intrigued, moved, enchanted, and challenged by Fifteen Dogs.
I am one of those who believe dogs to be of a higher order than humans. I spend a good portion of my life being companion to dogs who live with others, counting among the beings I love (and have loved) the most not a few canines. Thus, the premise of this novel (the following is from the publisher’s website) —
— I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.
— I’ll wager a year’s servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.
And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old ‘dog’ ways, and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.
— was wonderfully interesting to me. Imbued with the same sort of consciousness as have humans, how would such colors of knowing alter the shades of awareness and behavior already present in dogs? And, too, given these new ways of contemplation and expression, would dogs find their lives improved?
Fifteen Dogs approaches these questions without the assumption that being human is better — which is what won me over, because I think there is some argument that dogs are kinder, smarter, more honest and reliable than are humans. Most touching — for me — my most “a-ha” moment — which was wrought both gently and too, finally, with a bang — was the pointing out of the possibility that it is perhaps in the naming and labeling of emotions and ways of being where the trouble begins, and where both the greatest joys and sorrows are born.
To love before one names it — as happens with infants and animals, the open, full-on, complete trusting and immersion — is a most blessed and beautiful thing. To have to speak of it to give it reality, is, I think, a limitation and a curse. And while I love my reading and my words, well, I also yearn for more in my life of the silent, words-not-required bursting of emotion I have with my dog-friends.
This is a beautiful book, the intricately complicated simplicity of which provokes an examination of one’s assumptions about the nature of reality and consciousness, of the meaning of Life and Love beyond language, outside of language, and how it is we manage — each of us with our own highly individualized frames of reference — to connect, to find agency enough inside our private realities to make the leap outside ourselves to a shared reality. And none of this is done in a portentous, heavy-handed way, but, rather, suggested in the context of a well-told story that made me laugh, cry, and think. This, for example as one of the main dogs, Majnoun, asks the god, Hermes, to explain what love is:
— What you want to know, Majnoun, is not what love means. It means no one thing and never will. What you want to know is what Nira meant when she used the word. This is more difficult, because Nira’s word is like a long journey taken by one woman alone. She read the word in books, heard it in conversations, talked about it with friends and family, Miguel and you. No other being has encountered the word love as Nira has or used it in quite the same ways, but I can take you along Nira’s path.
That (and the paragraph that follows it – which I almost included but I really want you to read this book) is gorgeous, wow, thoughtfulness and literature. Highly recommended.