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Book Review: "The Dog" 

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The Dog, the marvelous new novel by Bard visiting faculty and Netherland author Joseph O'Neill, presents an image of Dubai that's in keeping with what one expects—a bright, air-conditioned mirage hovering over excess billions, a place where human habitat and mall culture blend as coherently as a mirrored elevator and a shiny Gucci purse. The unnamed expat lawyer who relates his Dubai experience (with a thoughtful nod to Robinson Crusoe) is still ruminating over a sour breakup in New York. The eponymous "dog" fleeing his "doghouse" of "phony coupledom," he relishes his massage chair and the sensation of vanishing in a cozy desert. His appreciation of the city's growing skyline rings with naïve gusto: "I can't pretend to understand what I'm looking at, but nor can I deny the spectacular pleasure I get from tall rebars standing in thickets in concrete, or from the short-lived orange plastic mesh that is like orange peel....Most compelling of all are the tower cranes."

An irony not lost on the narrator is that he landed his Dubai job because of a remote connection to Donald Trump. The super rich family of a school chum who's hired him to keep tabs on his brother's reckless spending is unduly impressed by the fact that he attended Trump's Palm Beach wedding, even if only as a last minute stand-in for a partner at his law firm (in an interesting reciprocity, he uses the partner's name as an alias when meeting prostitutes in Dubai). Returning to "the land of President Obama" after getting tangled in some illegal transactions, he is irked by the potholes that remained unfixed during his years away. When he compares the partially built Freedom Tower, quite unfavorably, to the Burj Khalifa, it seems likely that his architectural sensitivity will draw him back to the emirate. The appeal is not only sensual—he is captivated by the aspirational rhetoric that underscores his oasis lifestyle. He lives on a manmade lagoon called Privilege Bay in a high-rise called The Situation. This illusion of capitalism on steroids is one Trump himself would admire. O'Neill's dog sees it for what it is, but loves it anyway.

Our narrator spins his yarn with scenes elongated by legal and ethical scrutinizing. He justifies using an escort service by likening the women to tourists, but changes his tune when an unhappy Russian sex worker gives him the lowdown. He composes oodles of jargonish e-mails to his unresponsive bosses, many unsent, to clear himself of blame for their decisions. Meditating on the arc of his doomed relationship, he deconstructs what he terms the "outdated 'hell hath no fury' license," all the while assuring us he is merely being up-to-date on gender equality. It starts to seem his law training is poorly utilized.

The tragicomedy within the tragicomedy is that of the Man from Atlantis, a scuba-diving neighbor who is rumored to spend more time underwater than above. Rarely does a protagonist have such a perfect foil. The Man's mysterious disappearance ripples with revelatory effect. As word spreads that his neighbor is a bigamist, the narrator tries to imagine a world where hiding is still possible. When the Man's stewing Chicago wife comes searching, she provokes the narrator, asking him what he's running from. With uncharacteristic rage, he throws an issue of Dwell magazine at her. Absent the stinging sobriety of O'Neill's landmark Netherland, and more quixotic, The Dog is an equal and opposite adventure.

—Marx Dorrity

  • A review of "The Dog" by Joseph O'Neill.

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