The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser (2008) Little, Brown and Company (2008) 304 pp
I picked up The Lost Dog once before and after about twenty pages put it down thinking, is that worth rereading so that I understand it or should I just skip this one? I never picked it up again until just recently to march through the Booker longlist. I have to say, I got a whole lot more out of those first twenty pages on a second read, enough at least to make the book more compelling.
This book begins with Tom Loxley’s dog running off through the bushes with a lead still tied around its neck. It’s a Tuesday, and the rest of the sections of the book go from Wednesday, Thursday, Friday . . . until the next Thursday, and he’s looking for his dog throughout, sometimes alone and sometimes with help. If that doesn’t sound interesting in and of itself . . . of course, it isn’t. Here, the author sets up for herself a gigantic task of making the characters’ inner life and relationships the main part of a book with an uninteresting structure and no real plot. That’s a tall order, and I anxiously read to find out if she could do it.
Just having written the conclusion to his magnum opus, a work on Henry James, Tom is about to leave the home he rented from Nelly Zhang. But that dog runs off. As Tom begins his search, the book slips back and forth in time, sometimes going back to the mid-twentieth century in India, sometimes going back just a few years to Tom’s unhappy marriage, and sometimes not going back at all (it’s 2001 in Melboure, Australia, in the book’s present time). Each time shift is indicated with a slight break in the page, but it’s still pretty difficult to follow, so one must pay close attention — another reason de Kretser better pay off in the end!
In the first fifty or so pages, we go back to see Tom’s parents, Arthur and Iris, meet and wed. Iris has learned how to be afraid, thanks in part to her father Sebastian, who had big plans for Iris. She let him down when she married Arthur.
Four days after Iris returned from her honeymoon, her father informed her of her mistake. The enumeration of his son-in-law’s inadequacies occupied the following half an hour, and then the rest of Sebastian’s days.
Sebastian was right, though, Arthur is a phantom character in the book just as he was a nonpresence in life. Arthur is dead now, but Tom is still trying to take care of Iris while he looks for his dog. This is just one of the many relationships the book looks at. Tom also has an ex-wife, an ex-fling, a rival. He also is getting closer to Nelly Zhang, who has loads of relationships of her own: a son, Tom’s rival (and the son and the rival have an interesting relationship), and a lost husband.
This lost husband is another way, besides the lost dog, that de Kretser gives the story some structure. Like all things in the first part of the book, her husband is only remarked upon tangentially: “Tell you what, mate, you want to watch how you go. Look at what happened to the poor bloody husband, eh.” While we read about Arthur’s search for his dog, we also read about Arthur’s search for the truth about Nelly’s husband. Did he commit suicide? Did she kill him? Is he even dead?
There is a lot packed into this book: modernity, post-modernity, consumerism, post-colonialism, art and literary criticism, man and his dog, man and his mother, man and man. Despite the number of currents running through the book, I thought de Kretser did a good job managing them in a way that made me think about each individually and how they each connected in a greater whole — that is, when I wasn’t distracted by other things (but more on that in a minute).
Probably the most prevalent and, for me, most compelling theme is the flow of time and the influence of the past. Here, the present is not just the present; it is a liminal space between the past and the future, between birth and death (bringing to mind Samuel Beckett’s strangely profound 25 second play Breath, though de Kretser didn’t seem to follow Beckett all the way to a finding that life is pointless). This becomes even more compelling as de Kretser looks at the state of modern life (also with wiffs of Beckett: “She painted hospitals, those nonplaces where modern lives begin and end.”).
In The Lost Dog, history becomes a ghost that is almost more present than the present, and de Kretser has a few excellent ways of portraying this:
The past was not always past enough here. It was like living in a house acquired for its clean angles and gleaming appliances; and discovering a bricked-up door at which, faint but insistent, the sound of knocking could be heard.
Furthermore, the focus on Henry James, his ghosts, and his own fight with history, provides another nice subcurrent here, and de Kretser acknowledges her reliance on James’s work. Tom himself is fighting with history. He wants a life that is “free to be trivial,” but he is haunted by his own past and his own lack of ties to the future:
He lived in a country where he had no continuity with the dead; and, being childless, no connection with the future. Most lives describe a line that runs behind and before. His drew the airless, perfect circle of autobiography. What he missed, in the world, was affiliation.
It is this theme that provides one — only one, though, as there are several — link to the dog.
Animals do not suffer as we do. They do not live in time, they are not nostalgic for the past, they do not imagine a better future, and so they lack awareness of mortality.
And, if we weren’t getting it enough, de Kretser even becomes a bit obvious: “Goya’s ambiguous dog, poised between extinction and deliverance.” Perhaps that is why Tom seems to love the dog as much as he’s ever loved anyone in his life, even his dying mother.
Honestly, for the first one hundred pages, I didn’t like the book much at all. It was disjointed and seemed to be purposely though pointlessly obfuscated. Some of the paragraphs were clever, but cleverness cannot be a substitute real development of the broader themes. I thought, great, here comes another awful book that, because it is hard to read, sounds profound; when we finally get it, we mistake our pleasure with our own ability for pleasure with the author’s ability. But, quite to my surprise, after page 100 or so, a few passages piqued my interest and convinced me that I needed to be paying more attention. What happened? The exact opposite of what happened with Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence: The short, seemingly disconnected episodes from the first part started to come together in my head, to pleasing results. I excitedly, and with a great deal of pleasure, waded through the next 100 pages.
I’m sorry to report, though, that what happened next was not pleasant. De Kretser was already flirting with the baser elements of human existence, and it was working somewhat. I don’t know if she thought she was being edgy or what but she proceeded to present a preoccupation — no, an obsession — with excrement. There was one part that worked for me, but for the rest, no, she did not succeed. One can see what she is doing here — it’s what many writers do when they focus on excrement — but her overly frequent references to it became distracting and made me question her judgment as a writer. It’s not that it was excrement that annoyed me; I would feel similarly if she had done the same thing with flowers. But the fact that it was feces really made the author’s overuse become apparent. The book became banal and base, which is partly the point, but also incredibly over the top.
I don’t want to mislead people here, though; it wasn’t just the references to excrement that did me in. The entire last third of the book was awful. De Kretser’s pithy aphorisms, which at times were brilliant, became annoyingly pretentious due to their quantity if not their quality. Her obfuscated style stopped paying off when I realized I was doing a lot of work and getting nothing good in return. Her resolutions of the story lines were ultimately predictable and unfortunately failed to follow through with the interesting themes she set up. All love I had for the novel and for the author’s ability dissipated quickly. By the end, I didn’t care any more. I wouldn’t have finished this book were it not for the Booker (sometimes so much dedication to a cause can lead you down false paths — dirty Booker . . .).
I imagine that this is a book that pays off more with subsequent reads since the disjointed narrative will make more sense. Because of that, it’s likely that the judges, who will have gone through the book twice, will put this one on the shortlist. In fact, because so far it is the book that most peeved me, it will probably win: that’s what happened last year!
Once again a longlisted title has succeeded in being completely unbalanced for me. Can we make the shortlist out of portions of books? The first 100 pages of The Enchantress of Florence, the chapters on Zia in A Case of Exploding Mangoes, the middle of The Lost Dog (and then probably only every third page)? Of course, I still vote for the whole of Netherland.