Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

Update: Winner of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and Rogers Writers’ Fiction Prize.

23129923Fifteen 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.


32 thoughts on “Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

  1. River City Reading says:

    I am so fascinated by this book! I normally avoid books with animal deaths like the plague, but I think in this situation it would be different. I’ve heard great things about this from several people and desperately need to try to grab a copy.

    • Naomi says:

      The animal deaths are worth it, in this case. I highly recommend it. It would also be perfect material for the Socratic Salon! 😉

  2. My Book Strings says:

    This is indeed an interesting premise. I want to know if Hermes and Apollo are able to settle their bet at the end. (Don’t answer…) I love this sentence you quoted: “Perfect understanding between beings is no guarantor of happiness.” So true! As for the question you pose: it is definitely both. Life would probably be easier without consciousness, so it’s a curse, but life would also be less interesting, so it’s a blessing.

  3. Don Royster says:

    This reminds me of another animal book, “Watership Down” It really brings up the question of what type of intelligence is better. For there are many. The dog’s? Which is just to be. To live according to the senses? Or a thinking intelligence? But there are a number of types of human intelligences. Perhaps there are a number of types of dog intelligences. I do love the phrase “helplessly free”..

    • Naomi says:

      I liked that, too, which is why I included it. For them to be free they are giving up a sense of security they may have felt as a dog with an owner who feeds and shelters them. Sometimes, you have to trade one thing for another. I guess the same goes for trading in the ‘knowing’ for the ‘thinking’. There are benefits to both. A good book to get you thinking, but it is also enjoyable to just read it as a story (you are not required to think – I just like the thinking part).

  4. bookarino says:

    The premise is super intriguing! I, too, thought of Watership Down, but also of Animal Farm – both of which I love and adore – so this one is definitely going on my To be read list. Great review!

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks! Andre Alexis mentions Animal Farm in his interview on Q, actually. I haven’t read it, but now I’m thinking I would probably like it. Same goes for Watership Down. If you decide to read it, I hope you like it! (I think you will!)

  5. The Paperback Princess says:

    I’ve been wondering about this book! It does sound like an extremely original idea for a book but I can’t help thinking that giving dogs human consciousness would be a massive tragedy. I love my god exactly because he’s not a human – he doesn’t expect anything from me, he’s not disappointed by me, he just loves me and wants to be with me. And animal deaths! Dog deaths especially…I don’t know! I know you say they are worth it, and obviously you are also a dog lover, but I have a hard time with it. I’ve also never done well with books where animals act like people (unless they are children’s books) – I can’t suspend disbelief. Ghosts, magic or superpowers? Sure. Human-like animals? That’s crazy.

    • Naomi says:

      Hmmm… based on what you’ve said, I am trying to figure out whether or not this book is for you. I know I can’t really do that, and now I am even more curious to know what you would think of it, having such strong views about animals being given human characteristics.
      I think Alexis does this really well. I worried about how realistic it would seem, but he seems to know dogs and stays true to their dogness, while at the same time enhancing their consciousness. He also adds in a lot of humour, which I think saves the book from being completely depressing. The gods lighten it up, too.
      Spoiler alert, here! I also found some of the deaths to be a relief from their new lives (which hints at the fact that you are right to guess that giving them human intelligence is not a good idea). However, a couple of the outcomes may surprise you, because human consciousness isn’t all bad.
      End of spoilers. One of the dogs is a German Shepherd named Rosie. 🙂
      You might need to be in the right mood for this book. I would really be curious to know what you think of it. Have you read other similar books, like Animal Farm?

      • The Paperback Princess says:

        I’ve never read Animal Farm! Can you believe I got through school without having to read it!?
        I’m trying to figure out the same thing! And if a GSD in the story is more or less likely to sway me. In preparation of getting our darling boy I read a LOT of dog behaviour books. I had to be convinced to get a GSD and since it’s such a big breed with a certain reputation, I really wanted to make sure we did it right. Dogs are SO different from us and I think this is exactly why they are so happy. Well the ones that are well taken care of. But even ones that are so abused tend to be super sweet, in the most heart breaking way…

      • Naomi says:

        I love German Shepherds. I have never known one to be anything but sweet (and so smart!). We have a standard poodle, because that’s the kind that was looking for a home when we were looking for a dog. He is also very sweet, and it’s a bonus that he doesn’t shed. 🙂

        I haven’t read Animal Farm either. We read 1984 – maybe it’s one or the other. But, now I want to read it.

      • The Paperback Princess says:

        I haven’t read either of them! But I DID read Down and Out in Paris and London which was a DELIGHT.
        Poodles are also so smart. But the thing with smart dogs is you better be smarter!

  6. ebookclassics says:

    Aaah, I have an aversion to animal deaths or violence, but this book sounds so unique and ground-breaking. Are there humans in the story? It was not clear to me.

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t think any of us like it when animals die, but I think, in this case, it was worth it.
      There are humans in the story, but most of them are incidental. There is only one who is an important part of the book, and forms a bond with one of the dogs.

  7. Carolyn O says:

    You know, I’m not a dog person at all (should I be scared to admit that?), but this is the first review that ever made me want to read a book about a dog (or dogs). So cool. Thanks, Naomi!

    • Naomi says:

      You don’t have to be a dog person to like this book. In fact, it would probably help not to be one, since the biggest fear I am hearing about reading it is that the dogs are going to die. Maybe that won’t bother you as much.
      Also, the book isn’t really about dogs, but about human nature, and whether or not we can ever be happy – an experiment in which dogs are the ‘guinea pigs’.

    • Naomi says:

      HI Melissa! I’m only just seeing this comment now – sometimes they seem to fall through the cracks – makes me wonder how many others have done the same.
      I think this is a book you would like. Original and thought-provoking. I would be curious to know your thoughts on it if you decide to pick it up!

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