Jay: When André Alexis won the Giller Prize for his novel Fifteen Dogs, I was at one of the “Giller Light” satellite events. It was a really great night, and I am tremendously fond of dogs, so I put the book on my to-read list. But it wasn’t until you, my illustrious colleague, recommended it that I finally picked it up. You were right on the money about Ancillary Justice, and you were right about this one, too. Fifteen Dogs was superb.
So I start by asking you: When did your taste in books get so good, and when did you finally give up your abysmal preference for cats and see the sense in dogs being the superior furry companion?
Mark: My taste in books has both always been good and never been good. I’ll extol the virtues of Timothy Findley in the same breath that I explain why Chuck Palahniuk’s books are totally worth reading (on the toilet). Cats are great, but I wouldn’t suggest living with them. Dogs too. I think it’s better to have friends with dogs. Why buy the cow, right? Wait… that isn’t what I mean.
Anyway, I bought Fifteen Dogs on a whim over the holiday break when I had a bit of free time. The book is such a remarkable good time that I decided that you simply must read it. I’m actually looking forward to reading it again!
J: Timothy Findley’s a good parallel for this book, actually. At its heart, Fifteen Dogs espouses the same values as my favourite Findley books: bad things sometimes happen to good people, but bad things always happen to bad people. Well, dogs in this case. I wish someone had added it to Does the Dog Die (don’t worry, I just did).
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Alexis describes Fifteen Dogs as an “apologue”, or a fable/allegory. And that’s a fair description. The story—set mainly in High Park and the Beaches of Toronto—revolves around a bet between the gods Apollo and Hermes as to whether intelligence is a gift or a curse, using the dogs at a local veterinary clinic as their test subjects. These dogs are suddenly capable of complex human thought, but their canine sensibilities about the world remain preserved. In effect, the tension between their abstract thoughts and their base connection to reality drives much of the conflict in these poor pups.
What do you think, illustrious colleague? Does your singular intelligence damn you to a life of misery and isolation? Or have you found a way to make those exceptional brains of yours work for your benefit?
M: The point that the book makes—and it’s nowhere near as bleak as this may sound, or even as bleak as it feels when you’re reading—is that happiness is temporal and intermittent, and any kind of overarching satisfaction that we may find with our lives hinges on our ability to appreciate the drips and drabs of joy that we may receive, and use this appreciation as insulation against the largely cruel and pointless act of existing. Okay, that sounds pretty bleak. Thing is, I actually think it’s kind of beautiful.
The central questions that this book asks are a tough chew. Is it harder to be happy knowing all that we know about the world around us? Is it even more difficult to be happy to live aware that there are things that we don’t know (and will never know)?
And, you know, of course it’s harder. But would it be better to not have the capacity to feel existential dread? I’d like to think no. Because then I wouldn’t get such enjoyment out of laughing my ass off reading about a bunch of dogs going through it.
J: That is a bleak analysis of the book, yeah, but I think you’ve nailed it. There is beauty and wonder and humility in knowing that the unknown exists.
The one thing I’d add to your reading is that this a book is about love: love of self, of others, of language, of art, and even of a god. It’s about how love is borne of intelligence, of a deep and ineffable knowledge of others that requires self-awareness. The relationship that develops between Majnoun (a poodle) and Nira (a human) is probably the most compelling and immediately understandable love story I have experienced in ages. While the book is at times cruel, funny, and playful, it is the dignity it gives these dogs, and their loves, that made this such a compelling book for me.
Ultimately, Fifteen Dogs suggests that love transcends concerns of happiness, or the physical body, or even the self. Intelligence makes us suffer, but in return we get love. That’s a fair trade, as far as I’m concerned.
M: I think that you make a good point, and I would agree that this novel doesn’t go out of its way to punish these pups because it hates them. I feel that it actually goes to great lengths to give the reader each dog’s side of the story. We may not always agree with what the dogs do, but I don’t always agree with what anyone does.
I, like you, found Majnoun’s relationship with Nira to be incredibly affecting. It felt just as funny, warm and sad as real relationships often are.
It isn’t very often that I’ll reach the end of a book and get the feeling that I’m digesting something so entertainingly profound that I begin to look forward to reading it again, but I’m planning to tackle Fifteen Dogs again this summer. Perhaps plan a trip to High Park or the Beaches and do a bit of reading there, soaking up the pure Toronto-ness of it all.
J: I’d love to re-read the book, but I’ve already passed my copy on to someone important to me. So instead, I’ll plan to tackle these two creatures with affection for as long as I possibly can. It isn’t often that a book changes how I look at the people (and dogs) I love.
Go read Fifteen Dogs.