by Joseph O’Neill, Pantheon Books, 240 pages
The unnamed protagonist of Joseph O’Neill’s The
Dog, an expat in Dubai, is the kind of guy who brings a copy of Philanthropy magazine to a coffee meeting in the Mall of the Emirates. “It must be confessed, I was hoping the publication would make me look good,” he admits. He’s the kind of guy, in other words, with an awareness of how he is perceived, by others and perhaps by readers of his story — which may influence his preference for standing on higher ground.
And yet he is a philanthropist and a do-gooder. He donates more than a third of his salary to charity, and as part of his role as “officer” for the wealthy Lebanese Batros family — a job he takes after a bitter breakup with one of his New York law-firm colleagues — he promotes the creation of a foundation that donates to medical clinics in Africa. “When I question the worth of my life, it comforts me to think that, but for my instrumentality in this matter, a significant number of humans would likely be living less healthy, less happy, less worthwhile lives. One might say that this unforeseen good contains nothing less than the hidden meaning of my move to Dubai.”
One could as easily say that the unforeseen good — or bad, or good/bad motives with good/ bad outcomes — forms part of the meaning of The Dog. X, as he will hereafter be known (we do know the first letter of his name), obsesses over the ethics of his and others’ actions. For instance, one of his rules is “It is wrong to Google a person who does not want to be Googled by you.” He grapples with whether to write on a diving companion’s Facebook wall, to defend the man against malicious posts and save himself from “culpable helplessness.” Even his occasional nightly forays for sex are, as he sees it, morally justifiable: “a John can do good” by paying and treating his companion well.
The trouble is, X does Google people, and he doesn’t post anything on his diving companion’s wall. Furthermore, he doesn’t consider the possibility that paying his nighttime companions through a third party might not be entirely to their benefit. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, X is in an aimless purgatory that has the unbearable heat of a lower realm. It is fitting that The Dog is set in a place of never-quite-finished high-rises, abandoned luxury cars, a befuddling legal system, and soaring temperatures.
X’s work occupies much of his attention. He gets a job in Dubai after running into a college friend, Eddie Batros, in New York; in his eagerness to escape the city where his memories and his ex dwell, he decamps for the “abracadabrapolis” of mirage-rich Dubai. Once X is in his position working for the Batros family, he spends his time composing bitter “mental mail” directed at his absent employers and drafting disclaimers to avoid any personal liability for the actions he takes. He oversees an intern, Alain Batros, Eddie’s chubby teenage nephew, whose allowance is dependent on his weight-loss successes. X refuses to assume the burden of wearing “some unwarranted caretaking hat” — he is not responsible for Alain, he clarifies, reiterating his confused stance toward the wellbeing of others. (Alain is anything but a tragic figure, however. His attempt to extort a bidoon, a stateless individual who is usually descended from foreigners, is telling of his society’s moral incongruities.)
In his spare time, X occasionally goes offshore diving, indulges in pedicures, and meets with friends. A rare moment of action occurs when an acquaintance’s wife visits, provoking an unexpected outburst. Mostly, though, X ruminates. This does not make for a terribly dramatic novel. But there is a different kind of drama — and melancholy lure — in the daily human struggle to understand what it means to do “the right thing,” whatever that might be.
The Dog is O’Neill’s follow-up to his acclaimed 2008 novel,
Netherland, which similarly followed a man in lands foreign to him (in that book, a Dutchman becomes involved in New York City’s cricket culture). Proved beyond question there, and reaffirmed here, O’Neill is a highly accomplished wordsmith, as well as a bit of a showman. Sentences in The Dog can wind on for up to half a page, or they can be weighed down in a mire of legalese that reflects the convolutions of X’s moral and legal conflicts. Parenthetical statements are so rampant that there are instances of six parentheses in a row. The absurdity in some so-called reasoning is evident in such statements as “You never know until you know.” By turns pensive, aggressive, and darkly funny, this novel isn’t terribly uplifting. It leaves one with a sense of resignation that’s impossible to ignore in the face of statements like “it may be that most lives add up, in the end, to the sum of the mistakes that cannot be corrected.” But, even so, there are worthwhile insights and thoughtful moments to savor along the way. With its minimal plot, the strength of The Dog lies in its philosophical parsings and dexterous styling.
— Grace Labatt