Did you hear this one: “two gods walk into a Toronto bar …” The makings of a bad joke right? Add in talking dogs and it gets even worse. Scooby-doo meets Percy Jackson.
Thankfully, Giller Prize short-listed Fifteen Dogs is none of this but rather a inventive, thoughtful wisdom romp (it’s an apologue – think Aesop and Animal Farm) through what it means to be alive and human.
I really loved this book in all sorts of ways. I love dogs and this is a dog book. The story is set in Toronto (right in my own neighbourhood of Roncesvalles). And its a provocatively thoughtful book.
It opens in Toronto’s Wheat Sheaf Tavern where Greek gods Apollo and Hermes wager one year’s servitude on a Sleemans-fuelled bar bet – if animals were granted human intelligence, would they die happy? Wandering into a nearby veterinary clinic, they decide to settle the matter by changing the lives of the fifteen dogs in the kennel, giving them human consciousness and intelligence.
The rest of the book is both wonderful and strange, heartbreaking and hilarious as the dogs begin to see the world through new eyes, all the while keeping their dog essence. A few examples:
- One of the first flickers of consciousness for Rosie, a German shepherd was to wonder “what happened to the last litter she’d whelped. It seemed grossly unfair that one should go through the trouble of having pups only to lose track of them.”
- Atticus, a Neapolitan Mastiff and leader of the pack, finds that “all the old pleasures – sniffing at an anus, burying one’s nose where a friend’s genitals were, mounting those with lower status – could no longer be had without crippling self-consciousness.”
- Benjy, a resourceful beagle, immersed in the dog-eat-dog, status-ordered world of canines, wished “for a place where the echelon was clear to all, where the powerful cared for the weak and the weak gave their respect without being coerced. He longed for balance, order, right and pleasure.”
- Majnoun, a black poodle, after watching a movie with a human friend was strangely unmoved: “It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested in films. It was that he could not stand to see so many distant worlds without being to smell them.”
These dogs encounter deeply human longings – for love and friendship, the ache at the beauty of language, the challenges of knowing and being understood, the nostalgic or fearful wish for the way things were. Creative in entering the world of dogality (as Calgary artist Caroline Stanley calls it), Fifteen Dogs is one of those lovely thinking books, a rich consideration of what it means to be human.
Because consciousness is the air we breath, the water we swim in, we rarely stop to consider it. Author Andre Alexis helps us to rediscover the wonderfully perplexing reality of intelligence and consciousness by transposing it into these 15 dogs. What does it mean for a dog to have a soul? (I wondered if 15 was a reference to the debunked work of Duncan McDougall who weighed dying patients, finding they were 21 grams lighter after death, and then conducted the same test on 15 dogs and finding no difference, thus without souls).
The transposition of human intelligence into the sniffing, panting, humping, chasing world of dogs provides a sometimes jolting window into what it means to be human. At times you catch a renewed sense for the wonder and nobility of human nature as it’s discovered in the life of a dog. But then you find yourself shocked at the base, bestial behaviour as it’s set within human consciousness (it’s humbling to remember our real animal connections and also ugly to see when we descend to live like dogs).
In the end, we learn we are what we love and we are because we are loved. It’s like a little bit of Augustine set in a dog park, and the mash-up is beautiful.
* (As for the artwork, Andre Alexis mentioned that “If I had to name a visual artist who influenced the writing of the novel, it would be Vittore Carpaccio whose painting “St Augustine in His Study” (with its charming maltese dog listening to the voice of God) was an inspiration to me.”)