My life as a dog minder
THE WORLD REVOLVES AROUND JONATHAN AND HIS HANG-UPS
Boston-born author Meg Rosoff moved to London after attending Harvard University and proceeded to be fired from an impressive raft of advertising jobs (four at last count). Thankfully, she gave up the advertising industry in 2003 and has forged a much more accomplished career in writing, collecting a slew of awards, including The Guardian children’s fiction prize, Carnegie Medal and National Book Award.
Her first novel, a bestselling dystopian young-adult offering called How I Live Now, has won numerous honours and been made into a film. Penned in the same year, Meet Wild
Boars is a picture book about an awesome foursome of disgusting, oinking animals guaranteed to set a deliciously bad example for children everywhere. She has since released several novels and picture books in which teenagers give birth to moose and turn out to be God and God knows what else. Seeming to relish making each work as different as possible from anything she’s created before in terms of style, scope and subject matter, she’s taught us to expect the unexpected.
Jonathan Unleashed is Rosoff’s first novel for adults. From the outset, the main character promises to be delightfully dysfunctional — Jonathan is a daydreaming man-child who has nevertheless stumbled into a comfortable existence. He has managed to find a decent New York apartment, an intelligent and attractive girlfriend and a job at a so-hip-it-hurts advertising agency.
The only trouble is he’s as suited to this life as a fish wearing an overcoat. His living situation is semi-legal at best, his relationship is based on mutually accepted delusion and his boss scores an 11 on the madness scale. Plus, it’s the type of workplace where employees flip out and smash comically large clocks with comically large staplers and the clients are “ducks, quacking nonsense in his ears while nibbling his best ideas to death”.
The facade of adequacy begins to unravel the day Jonathan agrees to look after his brother’s dogs for six months. Jonathan becomes convinced his new canine best friends, Sissy and Dante, disapprove of his lifestyle and starts projecting all manner of opinions and fears on to them, from the grinding tedium of corporate life to the sabotage of his relationship, to a rejection of capitalism and a yearning for a simpler, more creative society — “Maybe his dogs hated New York City, with its emphasis on labels, money and grooming”.
This echoes the innermost thoughts of many of us, and especially the suspicions of dog lovers that our furry friends might just be higher beings sent to protect us from ourselves: “Perhaps dogs lacked the intellect to invent dumdum bullets and destroy oceans, but Jonathan wasn’t at all convinced that this made them psychologically inferior to, or less complex than, humans.” At times Jonathan, in cahoots with the dogs, simply seems like a mouthpiece for some Very Deep Thoughts. He takes neurotic and self-absorbed to dizzying new heights, but always in a supremely likable fashion. The world revolves around him and his hang-ups, played out in the health, fortunes and humours of his canine companions.
Perhaps it is an intentional side effect of portraying Jonathan’s self-absorption, but what at first blush might appear to be an eclectic supporting cast of charming misfits in the story unfortunately don’t feel like fully formed characters and veer towards caricature. Consequently, we miss out on the chance for a deeper connection with them, as well as the full force of their humour. The viewpoint jumps around and is a touch jarring at times, but Rosoff keeps the whole outfit tumbling along quite nicely with short, punchy chapters and generous lashings of romance and absurdist comedy.
Suspense is created by exploring what happens when you push avoidance and procrastination to the limits, deferring all difficult conversations. For those of us who like to live life in the safety zone, this is a tempting ride and a delightful what-if. Jonathan is not exactly fed up with being a responsible adult so much as he never was one at all. He was only trying the role on for size and now the jig is up. His world dismantles and we’re keen to see the fur fly, despite a niggling suspicion that Jonathan is actually kind of shallow for someone who thinks they’re so deep and none of this really matters anyway.
Like its main character, Jonathan Unleashed is imperfect but endearing nonetheless and will appeal to the dog-loving working putz in anyone who longs to break free from the 9-to-5 shackles, quit their job in a blaze of glory and start over as a comic-book creator, dog groomer or professional daydreamer.
If only we could be so lucky.
Meg Rosoff has written her first novel for adults