by J.M. Coetzee
from the December 4, 2017 issue of The New Yorker
It’s not every day one of my favorite authors — indeed , one in my Pantheon (see here) — has a story in The New Yorker, but today we have J.M. Coetzee’s very short story “The Dog.” It’s so short — and, I think, interesting — that I quickly read it while getting this post ready.
I don’t believe I have ever read a short story by Coetzee. His only other story in The New Yorker was 2005’s “The Blow,” which went on to become part of his novel Slow Man. I don’t see an interview about “The Dog” to let us know if it’s an excerpt of a forthcoming novel or if it is a standalone story. If it’s standalone, it is fine. I liked it. Coetzee is, as usual, adept at creating an altercation, and examining the mental state of those involved, in a few short sentences. However, if it is standalone, I imagine many will be disappointed as it seems to beg to be part of a larger, more involved, story.
I look forward to your thoughts below!
I’m excited. It feels to me like it’s part of a longer work. He’s published (I think) two stand-alone Elizabeth Costello stories in addition to “The Blow”, one called “ As a Woman Grows Older,” and I forget the name of the second (which makes me doubt whether or not there were one or two). Point is, this would still be his first published stand-alone story. But she cycles, there’s a dog, and has an anger in her heart: Doesn’t bode well for a Coetzeean protagonist. I bet we see her again soon.
I also enjoyed then story. When the woman (girl? I don’t think her age is ever indicated) decides to speak to the dog’s owners it is a quite unexpected and interesting development. Their conversation is quite compelling. The rhythm of the dialogue feels like it was written with the idea of an old fable in mind. The extreme brevity of the story, the sort of non-ending it has, and the fact Coetzee does not typically publish short stories all seem to suggest it might be part of a longer work. The New Yorker didn’t give any information about the story, so I asked. I got a reply that this story “comes from a new collection of stories which will be published some time next year.” So yes, it is a part of a larger work in some sense, but it might actually be a stand-alone story. I still wonder if it might be an excerpt from a longer short story. We get only 1200 words here so it easily could be from something longer that is still a short story. I guess we will just have to wait for 2018 to find out.
I liked the short, aphoristic punch of this piece. More flash fiction than anything, it really compacts a lot while allowing the reader plenty of space for interpretation and play. It’s hard not to reflect on the current sexual harassment kerfuffles and the presumptions of the woman vs. the “If you don’t like it, that’s your problem” POV of the dog owners as some sort of riff on the culture wars of the present. Some readers will clearly feel she is justified in her desire for “emotional safety”. Other will feel the dog’s owners are right to suggest that if she doesn’t like walking by it, she can take another street, and that to walk through the world does not grant you freedom from undesired attention. It does feel very much a fable, as David says above, with the French-German parallels allowing in all sorts of cultural and historical light as well. Nicely done, Mr. Coetzee.
Same here. Powerful little story. Intended or not, certainly does resonate with what our cultural and political experience is these days. Disturbing.
I am feeling sorry for the dog. The owners are mistreating him by keeping him in a cage in solitary confinement, indifferent to his fury and despair. Is this where the author wanted to go with the story?
With so little happening in this non-story, I wonder if readers are expected to be interested in the literal events depicted or if we are supposed to read the piece merely as operating at a symbolic level. At a literal level, I find the protagonist’s feelings and behavior baffling. From what we can tell, the dog is secured and can do nothing more than bark and hurl itself against a gate. (It would be different if the gate was described as partly giving way, maybe as a wooden gate that splinters a little each time the dog smashes into it.) So, why is the main character so frightened?
When I was in the first grade, I walked to school by myself and, every morning, passed a largish dog confined to a small concrete courtyard. Each time, the dog barked angrily, loudly, and repeatedly as I approached. Like any self-respecting six-year-old boy, I barked back, matching the dog woof-for-woof. I can still remember the cadence of its barks.
The dog didn’t scare me at all, and I considered our morning encounters to be a little game. Granted, I don’t recall the dog hurling itself against its fence, but I doubt that would have made a difference, except maybe to add to the thrill.
My point being, I pretty much lived the protagonist’s experience and far from being frightened by it, I was left with fond memories. Maybe our bicyclist is supposed to be an especially nervous type, but the story doesn’t seem to suggest that or do much with that possibility.
So I just don’t get the sense of danger that this character experiences. And without that sense of danger, I don’t see how the piece gets anywhere at the literal level. The meeting with the elderly couple seems contrived and at odds with the m.c.’s fear – would she really want to meet this frightful (to her) beast? And with the literal meaning being so absent, a secondary, symbolic meaning (whatever it might be) seems unearned.
Interesting responses here that go somewhat against what I considered the central aspect of the story: the unwanted aggression and the message that you simply have to deal with it.
Hilke feels sorry for the dog — and I don’t think that’s unwarranted, though I do think it’s incidental to the story.
And Roger finds the protagonist’s actions baffling. I find this interesting because I, also, probably don’t worry too much about big dogs barking, as much as I hate it when it’s every day on a certain path I take for my neighborhood walk. But I know that the terror is very real for others, and, having worked with several victims of dog-bites, not unwarranted either.
It’s turning out to be a nicely provocative story about who’s responsible for mitigating that terror, if anyone, and whether it’s something one should live with or get over. When it comes to unwanted aggression, I think there are many parallels out there.
The dog’s hostility in fact mirrors the elderly couple’s asocial, solipsistic indifference. The dog is the outer manifestation of the couple’s alienation. That said, the brevity and inconclusiveness of the story leave one perplexed. One reads the story in the expectation that some resolution may be at hand, or some clarification. None occurs.
Trevor, I don’t think the story is about simple aggression. There are a strong sexual element to how it is described, which suggests something more is going on here. Roger, I think this both explains why your experience as a child was different and why the more symbolic reading of the story is required. It would be a bit too odd to take literally the idea that the dog represents a sexual threat to the girl/woman. Dennis, I don’t think there can be an intended reference to current events in the news. The Weinstein story started less than two months ago making it seem unlikely that the story was not already written by then. But of course, there have been other, smaller news stories in the past that could have motivated the story. (I am thinking of the video from a few years back of a woman being subjected to repeated catcalls as she walked down the street in New York.) But in confronting the dog’s owners and getting no help it does seem a bit more like a parallel to the issue of harassment in the work place, complaining to a boss who is more annoyed by the complaint than by the harassment. Hilke, I would probably feel more sympathetic to the dog except that he does seem more of a symbolic character. Hopefully there is a longer version of the story yet to come that will help explain and clarify some of this.
Scary dogs is a social phenomenon in many places of the world, among them Western Cape where Coetzee´s origins are.
People in affluent middle class neighborhoods have the dogs because they are afraid of the consequences of large income differences.
The passing health care employee is afraid twice a workday; the old couple all the time.
By the way, another story (“Lies”) of J.M. Coetzee is published in NYRB issue dated Dec 21. Another simple and effective one-page story!
Yes! Please do read “Lies” as debashish recommends! On “The Dog,” I wonder what this flea-bitten, frayed cardigan wearing, couple in their sparsely furnished and airless home are actually protecting via their guard dog. I would submit that they are protecting themselves from any intrusions from the outside world. The atavistic, primitive, and knee-jerk hostile response to an attempted respectful request seemed as baked into the couple’s psyches as the viciousness is to the dog’s. We read: “Augustine says that the clearest evidence that we are fallen creatures lies in the fact that we cannot control the movements of our own bodies.” Perhaps Coetzee is extending this inability to the workings of the human mind. We need not look very far today (or any day, for that matter) to find others who are visceral and hostile, without “willing” it, in their responses to their fellow human beings.
This could perhaps be part of something larger, but it’s completely sufficient on its own. What I took from it was the idea of uncontrollable or reflexive behavior. The dog, of course, goes purely on reflex. What disturbs our protagonist is being reminded that she, despite her efforts, also does too. The older couple seem to be reflexive–not in quite so “primitive” a way–but in their hostile responses. Another take–people who let animals vicariously express their rage and then pretend they’re helpless to control the animal.
I am a little surprised no one has yet mentioned that the fearful bicyclist is a foreigner. The story seems to me to be very much about that status, and the old couple’s response to it. She not just any passerby that the dog wants to attack, she’s from somewhere with a different language than French. Coetzee leaves it open, but I imagine her skin color as likely quite a few shades darker than the old couple’s, which enters into their hostile reaction. I’m thinking the story may have been prompted by the immigration crises in Europe, in some way (although the author lives in Australia).
The woman’s cursing of the dog is odd – people in real life don’t substitute the word “curse” for the actual curse word, the way she does. I wonder what we are supposed to make of that.
Good observation, mehbe. I had not thought much about the language issue before. I think when I read the story I just assumed that it was set in some unnamed French-speaking country and that was it. But it does mention that the cyclist’s French is good, but less than perfect. I don’t reach the same conclusion you do about this, however. If I did not know who the author was, I would have assumed that the author is from a French-speaking country and this is set there. But Coetzee has lived in four countries in his life (South Africa, the UK, the US, and Australia) and French is not a common language in any of them. So it could really be anywhere. As a Canadian, I think the language issue might not indicate that the cyclist is an immigrant. There are a lot of parts of Canada where a very strong, but less than fully fluent French-speaker might encounter native speakers where neither are immigrants. There also are many countries in Africa where French is the national language as a result of colonization but where some native born citizens speak the language better than others (and where there is no racial difference among them). The fact that there is this open question left unanswered would seem to me to further suggest that this is a fragment that is part of a longer story where some of that context (what country it takes place in, whether the cyclist is native born or an immigrant, and the race of the characters) might be explained. As it is, it is not obvious to me what the answers to those questions might be.
As for the sentence, “Curse you to hell!”, It did not strike me as that odd. I googled it and found a lot of examples of people using the sentence. It might be less common than “Damn you to hell!” (Google tells me the latter is five times more common), but it is common enough that I don’t take it as being particularly important.
Thank you to everybody for your thoughtful interpretations. You have opened up my mind to so many aspects!
And Trevor, your analysis resonated most with me:
“…what I considered the central aspect of the story: the unwanted aggression and the message that you simply have to deal with it.”
“…provocative story about who’s responsible for mitigating that terror, if anyone, and whether it’s something one should live with or get over.”
ART IS AN EXPRESSION OF ITS CREATOR TO BE INTERPRETED BY EACH OF ITS OBSERVERS ACCORDING TO THEIR EXPERIENCES.
ONE MIGHT CONSIDER THE QUESTION: WHO IS THE DOG? THIS IS DEFINITELY MORE THAN A DOG STORY!