Friday, July 17, 2015

The Dog by Joseph O'Neill

Joseph O’Neill won the PEN/Faulkner fiction award for the novel Netherland in 2009.  The novel describes the life, in New York, of a man from The Netherlands.  In an attempt to acclimate himself to his new land, he joins a cricket club and begins playing with the team.  The novel is about finding one’s way and place in a foreign land.  He continues this theme in his latest novel, The Dog.

O’Neill was born in Cork County, Ireland of an Irish father and a Syrian Catholic mother.  His family traveled a lot, but they settled in England, where O’Neill became a barrister with chambers in the Temple.  He handled business law cases.  Since 1998 he has lived in New York City where he teaches at Bard College.

The Dog is a peculiar, yet engaging story of a man distraught over a break-up with Jenn, his partner.  He runs into a college friend, Eddie Batros, the youngest son of a wealthy resident of Dubai.  He offers the narrator a job as “Family Officer,” which has a vague, but eclectic, list of duties.  These duties include anything from babysitting a 14-year-old, Alain, who is struggling in school to approving checks for the family foundation.  The name of this narrator is never specifically mentioned, but he refers to himself as “I/Godfrey Pardew.”  The story also includes a number of unusual characters, who make his attempt to assimilate into the Dubai culture all the more difficult.

O’Neill uses long, long sentences with numerous parentheticals.  He sometimes closes sentences with as many as 3, 4, 5, or even 6.  He writes in one instance, “(In my book, the win-win-win ideal, valuable advance though it is on the mere win-win, does not go far enough.  It seems unsatisfactory to restrict the stakeholders in a given transaction to the two transactors plus the inescapable third party, to wit, the planetary/global lot. There is a fourth admittedly subjective and conceptually vague interest at stake, namely the effect of the transaction in terms of the human race’s susceptibility to downfall or glory.  And I suspect, uselessly and a little awfully, that the definition there must be a further, fifth plane of moral reality, beyond our animal comprehension, involving interest that transcend even the destinies of our planet and of the human soul.  I do not mean the divine or the universal as such.  Nor am I mystically hinting at some cosmic good news.  If only I were!)” (86).

An old say goes, “Once a lawyer, always a lawyer.”  O’Neill is a lawyer; I/Godfrey Pardew is a lawyer, so inevitability the bony hand of the law guides some of the prose.  Pardew also has a fondness for writing email which are requests for clarifications, complaints, and candid opinions.  However, he never sends any of these letters.  He fails to completely understand the culture of Dubai, and it costs him in the end.

Pardew’s days consist of shuffling paper, signing a few documents, talking to Alain and his assistant Ali, drinking, scuba diving, and relaxing in his massage chair.  While the story in The Dog by Joseph O’Neill does hold the reader’s interest, the meanderings of his mind and sentences, at whose length the mind boggles, did become a tad annoying.  Only my wondering at what might happen to him tenuously held me from invoking the Rule of 50.  4 stars.

--Chiron, 6/10/15

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