Update: Winner of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and Rogers Writers’ Fiction Prize.
Fifteen Dogs is the most creative and unique book I have read in a long time. It was funny, smart, inventive, moving, thought-provoking, and I didn’t want to put it down. I had to know what was going to become of all the dogs.
This story starts off in a bar in downtown Toronto, where Apollo and Hermes are having an argument about the merits of human intelligence and the nature of humanity.
Just listen to these people. You’d swear they understood each other, though not one of them has any idea what their words actually mean to another. How can you resist such farce?
Hermes wonders what it would be like if animals had human intelligence. Apollo offers a wager.
I’ll wager a year’s servitude, said Apollo, that animals – any animal you choose – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.
The gods grant 15 dogs at a local veterinary clinic human intelligence/conciousness, and wager that even if one of them dies happy, Hermes wins the argument.
Warning: Dogs are going to die in this book. They have to. But, I thought you should know.
… they looked out on Shaw Street and suddenly understood that they were helplessly free, the door to the clinic having closed behind them, the world before them a chaos of noise and odour whose meaning now mattered to them as it had never mattered before.
And, the dogs are set free into the world with their new intelligence. They are confused at first, and it takes them some time to get used to it. They decide to stick together, considering themselves a pack. They find a place to call home in High Park, and develop a new language to convey their more complicated thoughts and feelings to each other – a language they hadn’t needed before.
It’s not long before the dogs become divided; some of them want to embrace their new intelligence and others want to go back to being as dog-like as they can. And so begins the planning and strategizing within the group. This divide and the consequences of it is the hardest part of the book to comes to terms with, especially if you are a dog-lover. As humans, it is hard to understand some of the dogs’ actions and reasoning, just as it is hard for them to understand some of the things we do. It also seems much worse now that the dogs are aware of their own mortality.
For Atticus, 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 consciousness.
But although their new way of thinking was bothersome – a torment at times – it was now an aspect of them. Why should they turn their backs on themselves?
The lower status dogs that are still a part of the original pack find themselves in an odd situation. To protect themselves from being attacked by the others, they have to suppress their new language and try to act like dogs. This isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Benjy and Dougie were dogs forced to perform a version of dogness convincing enough to please other dogs who had, to an extent, forgotten what dogness was. Were any of them actually barking or growling in the old way? Neither Benjy or Dougie ever knew. Nor, of course, could they ask. They would have been bitten – or worse – if they had.
They were, in effect, dogs imitating dogs.
I found it fascinating to read about what the dogs were thinking and feeling. They each had their own way of coming to terms (or not) with their new consciousness. And, just because they are given human intelligence doesn’t mean that they understand it. Many things are confusing to them and don’t make sense when up against what they have always innately known as dogs.
… he could not have guessed that ‘intelligence’ could be a source of status. It seemed to him that what humans called ‘intelligence’ (knowing the accepted names for things, performing feats that required a certain mental dexterity) was in every way inferior to the ‘knowing’ he remembered from his previous life as a dog, the life before he was sideswiped by ‘thinking’.
The line between natural (the things Majnoun couldn’t help doing) and cultural (the things he could) was neither clear nor fixed.
The story of Majnoun and his new owner Nira is especially moving. It also allows us the closest look at dogs versus humans/thinking versus instincts/love versus loyalty. (Majnoun is also the same breed and colour of our own dog – I don’t think I will ever be able to see my dog in the same way again.)
Perfect understanding between beings is no guarantor of happiness. To perfectly understand another’s madness, for instance, is to be mad oneself. The veil that separates earthly beings is, at times, a tragic barrier, but it is also, at times, a great kindness.
In a conversation between Majnoun and Hermes:
I can see, said Hermes, that you would like to ask me something.
Can you tell me what love means? asked Majnoun.
Your bodies are so graceful, said Hermes, and your senses are magnificent. I regret that you’ve been changed, Majnoun. If you were as you’d been, a dog like other dogs, the question you asked would not have occurred to you. You would know the answer already.
Despite being changed, these dogs are also able to maintain a lot of their dogness; they are obsessed with dominant and submissive behaviors, they still have their instincts to kill and fight for food or protection, and they still love to smell and eat gross stuff. The author uses some of these behaviors as an opportunity to add some humour to the book. I found myself laughing and smiling a lot while reading this book – even the most sensible of these dogs just can’t stop themselves from being gross (because, really, dogs are gross, even as they are lovable).
… the Beach was where humans, for the most part, left him alone. They had better things to do, it seemed, like keeping large balls in the air or gliding on shoes with small wheels or plunging themselves into the lake – whose waters reeked (marvellously) of urine, fish, and a thousand dirty socks.
‘Housework’ was a strange concept in any case. As long as one didn’t shit in inconvenient places, where was the problem? As far as Majnoun was concerned, the real trouble was the size of human dens and with the fastidiousness of primates. You would think, having as much space as they did, that they would simply move from one room to another when they wished, but their need for chemical smells and clean surfaces betrayed them. As for the dishes: what was the point of cleaning off the smells and tastes that clung to bowls, pots and plates? That was like scrubbing the best part away, then congratulating yourself for it.
I felt invigorated by this book – like it opened up a whole new world of things for me to think about; like, what would have happened if human intelligence had been given to cats, or some other animal, instead of dogs? Or, what would happen if dog-like sensibilities were given to humans? The possibilities are endless!
I am so happy Coach House Books was kind enough to send me a copy of this book. A while ago, I read and reviewed André Alexis’s Pastoral, in which I enjoyed his observations and insights on human nature. But, Fifteen Dogs takes it to a whole new level. I will be watching out for what he comes up with next.
Read this review of Fifteen Dogs in The Star.
Listen to the author’s interview on Q, where he talks about how he created his book, what dogs mean to him, the dog poetry he included in the book (which I didn’t even touch on), and his answer to the question: Is human consciousness a blessing or a curse?
What do you think? Is human consciousness a blessing or a curse?
*All the quotes in this post are taken from an uncorrected proof, provided by the publisher.