From Canada: A Highbrow Book About Talking Dogs
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we’re always fans of those who can pull off the talking-animal thing.
By Tobias Carroll
André Alexis has a story to tell about Toronto. It’s the kind of story about a city only someone who’s lived there for decades can tell, about absences and neighborhoods, loss and companionship. It’s a story about divinity, love, what it means to be human.
And he tells it through the eyes of 15 dogs.
Such is the delicious weirdness of Trinidadian-born, Canadian-dwelling Alexis, whose latest novel, Fifteen Dogs, tops an already impressive writing career. He’s been a literary figure to watch in the Great White North since the mid-1990s. His debut novel, Childhood, won the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. Alexis’s previous novel, Pastoral, about a young priest assigned to a small parish in rural Ontario, was a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2014, and was on The Globe and Mail’s list of the top 100 books of the year.
He’s certainly a writer of the modern global ilk, moving deftly between his motherland in the Caribbean and its distinctly colder cousin. But his habit is to revive old, classical styles, weirding and wackying them up for the present-day reader. Like that dog novel. It’s an apologue, a style of storytelling you don’t hear much about these days — the kind that uses animals to tell a moral tale (the same thing George Orwell deploys in Animal Farm). Orwell isn’t exactly an influence, though; Alexis would give you Beckett, German philosopher Jakob von Uexkull, Polish author Witold Gombrowicz and Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. He looks pretty much like how you’d expect for someone with such obscure, worldly names available on the tip of his tongue: round-faced, professorial and bespectacled, with a dry, resonant voice. He once considered being a musician in his late teens (he’s now 58) but wasn’t into the “boring” conversations musicians have with one another.
Says critic Steven W. Beattie: Alexis’ style is evolving, getting more experimental, “blending forms and reclaiming forgotten modes of writing” — perhaps invoking his affection for Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood, fellow genre benders. And he keeps up the intellectualism throughout this latest book. An argument between the Greek gods Hermes and Apollo in a Toronto bar opens the novel. A wager is made, and, as a result, 15 dogs are granted human intelligence. The inspiration for the novel, Alexis reveals, comes from a very particular source: an Italian film from 1968 called Teorema; in it, Terence Stamp plays a god who arrives on Earth and, as Alexis says, “breeds discontent, despair, catatonia or artistic inspiration.” He’s very into this whole “idea of the visitation of God.” Pastoral also grapples with the concept of a divine presence in very different ways, and his next novel, inspired by Treasure Island, takes as its subject “the sacredness of quests.”
Excerpt from Fifteen Dogs:
“He had always been proud of his ability to do what his masters asked. He had earned the biscuits and treats that had come to him, but he had resented the ritual, too. He had sometimes had to suppress himself to keep from running away. In fact, he would have fled his master, had he been able to take the treats with him — not just the treats, mind you, but the whole feeling of treats, the being patted, the being spoken to in the way his master spoke when pleased. Of course, now that he was free, there was no use thinking about treats at all.”
But his material doesn’t come from up high, per se; rather, Fifteen Dogs stemmed from a violent incident, witnessed on a visit to Tobago. He watched as two dogs collaborated to kill and eat a freely roaming chicken. Which made him think of “what humans are like when they’re dealing with power, and what humans are like when they’re dealing with love, when they’re dealing with sex, when they’re dealing with God.” Read: We’re all animals. Dark.
Alexis can be a contentious figure in Canadian literary circles — and sometimes just an unknown one. Last year, in a lengthy essay, he criticized writer and academic David Gilmour (not to be confused with Pink Floyd’s guitarist) for racist elements in Gilmour’s novel The Perfect Order of Things. The result was what critic Anne Kingston referred to in MacLean’s as “Canada’s most robust literary feud.” A few years earlier, Alexis had written about his opinion “that Canada as a critical culture was third-rate.”
But of course, he’s a complicator of the country that birthed Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, in part because of style, in part because of Trinidad. That birthplace isn’t one he can wield easily. In fact, he can’t even really write about it at all. He stopped work on a book dealing with 1930s Trinidad. More specifically, Alexis describes it as “a long novel that I had to abandon because my parents hate it.” They objected to his depictions of violence in Trinidadian life; Alexis does not expect to return to that project during his parents’ lifetimes. Not typical of fiction writers who, as the adage goes, are supposed to write as if their parents are dead. Alexis’ mother, on the other hand, acts as an early reader of his fiction, a role she’s had since early in his writing career. She is “incredibly ruthless,” he says. After reading his short novel A, he recalls, she “sent me a long email in which she expressed deep concern for my mental well-being.” She suggested he see a shrink.
His parents’ heritage does show up in his work, though — while he loves European literature, citing French, German and Italian writers as particularly influential, storytelling itself, he says, “is a form of intimacy that takes me back, in a way, to Trinidad, to my parents being very Trinidadian.” And then that warm sentiment: “A novel is in some ways an approximation of a campfire,” he says, “except I’ve got to provide the campfire and the hot dogs and marshmallows and keep your attention while I’m cooking you this kind of story.”