Coach House Books, 2015
Review Brian Gilmore
About Brian Gilmore
Brian Gilmore is a poet and Associate Professor at Michigan State University and the author of three collections of poetry, including his latest, “We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters” (Cherry Castle Publishing), a 2015 Hiurston-Wright Legacy Award Nominee for Poetry. His fiction has been published in Obsidian II, Eyeball, and most recent Fjords.
According to David Chariandy in a November 2004 article in the Journal of West Indian Literature on Andre Alexis, Alexis was part of a “new phase in the history of Caribbean Literature” when he emerged. Alexis, born in Trinidad, but essentially a writer reared in Canada, depicts his West Indian heritage in “threatening terms” according to Chariandy, and is more comfortable seeking out an identity as a Canadian writer.
Andre Alexis’ latest offering is a novel called Fifteen Dogs. It is ultimately a philosophical work with multiple moments of departure for the reader to explore. Alexis, the author of eight previous works, consistently over the years has explored intriguing thematic paths in many of his books and this book is no different. Fifteen Dogs is a brief novel, a work Alexis states that he completed in just three months. Alexis enters the world of fables to tell a story of well, Fifteen Dogs, but to also consider the day to day burden of consciousness and by default, the conscience of man, right and wrong, choices with ramifications for others.
This reader could not help but to wonder initially if the story is a critique on dogs as pet culture in the developed world but that might be a reach. This is that part of people’s lives where their pets (dogs) have become their obsession and society is increasingly being asked to change to accommodate this development. However, I mostly ignored the philosophical ‘rabbit holes’ that are embedded in the story and just followed the lives of the dogs Alexis briefly follows in the story.
I thought of Franz Kafka’s short story, “Jackals and Arabs” reading “Fifteen Dogs,” another tale of animal and human comparison though Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ came to mind throughout as well as Paul Auster’s “Timbuktu.” But the dogs in Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs are the most impressive (as total characters) I have read in any fiction.
He tells their story by portraying them as very human-like with few controls and little sense of order to their lives except many that were already in place. The gods Hermes and Apollo have made a bet in a Toronto tavern that the dogs will not die happy if they are given these characteristics. The dogs suddenly can talk to one another like humans and they want as well. They want to rule, to dominate, eat a lot, kill other species for consumption indiscriminately, and control their world completely (at least some of them). I guess most of this sounds familiar.
The object of Hermes and Apollo’s madness in the story, for the most part, are a group of 15 dogs locked up separately in cages in a kennel who are suddenly free to not only roam about their city but also to approach it with human intelligence and not just instinctive, reactionary choices that dogs must make. Of course, Alexis tosses his first curve to the story as three of the 15 never leave the kennel and meet their end early in the story. The other twelve, a mixture of various dogs, and various personalities that react to their advanced intelligence, march out into the world unified as a pack but certainly doomed to disaster because they are now very human, at least according to Alexis.
Is Alexis using dogs to shine a bright light on the atrocities and pettiness of humans? It appears obvious and even if this is not true, he will push readers that way. This early exchange between the dogs (the dogs can talk to one another) suggests so:
- I have spoken with all the others, said Atticus. To live as we were meant to live, there must be change. Some may stay. Some must not.
- What about the black dog, asked Frack.
- He is not one of us, answered Atticus.
- It would be better to kill him, said Max.
Fifteen Dogs presents some of its best digressions when the dogs showcase the failure of human beings to embrace their lives and treat each other as their development has made possible. The segment where the story describes the same sex sexual activity also seems to be another moment where Alexis is placing issues before the reader and creating a discussion within the story.
Alexis’ text is quite deliberate in tone and at times reminds one of the Guyanese writer, Wilson Harris because of the technical precise manner in which it is presented. Thus, if Alexis is uninterested in his West Indian roots, he certainly presents a capable text that is solid in delivery in that tradition. Here it is an early example of the tight descriptions: Autumn had come. The leaves were changing colour. Night itself seemed darker, for being more cool. The pack had settled into a routine: scavenging, avoiding humans, hunting rats and squirrels.
But Alexis is not cerebral like Harris, at least not here in Fifteen Dogs. It is an ambitious literary effort but one difficult to pull off considering though the dogs are the central characters, you will find it hard to actually get to know any of them in any intimate manner. Stories are mostly driven by our need for a main character or several characters to seek achievement in so manner. This story is driven by an external twist by two characters that have little with do with the action.
When some of the dogs enter the world of humans and become pets or companions (you choose), the story is also greatly enriched. This interplay between the owners and their part-dog, part-human pets, suggests that the lives of humans are great lives after all but for our shortcomings and moral failings.
Regardless of how you feel about Alexis’ elusive themes and distant characters, his storytelling skills are of high quality and his ambition as a storyteller undeniable. “Fifteen Dogs” may or may not add to his already established reputation; it certainly will be respected as a novel of careful experimentation.