The 1950s craze for science fiction, spurred by a combination of cold war paranoia, terror of the bomb, and a yearning for a bright, new, clean, and limitless world, threw up some wonderfully weird magazines. Most of the stories they contained were all too dispensable—or perhaps one was too young to appreciate them?—but who could forget their cover illustrations, depicting fantastical cities of the far future, with mile-high skyscrapers, viaducts soaring into the clouds, flying cars, and sky-borne trains. Nowadays, seeing photographs of the city of Dubai, we of the older generation rub our eyes in amazement. In this city in the desert, the future, that in our young days seemed impossibly far off, or just plain impossible, has already arrived, and—who would have thought?—it is just as dementedly kitschy as anything dreamed up for the covers of New Worlds or Astounding Science Fiction.
Joseph O’Neill, by a stroke of inspiration, has set his new novel, The Dog, in Dubai. The books by which he is best known, the prize-winning novel Netherland, and the earlier Blood-Dark Track, a family memoir, are primarily about place, and placelessness. This is hardly remarkable. O’Neill’s own provenance, as Blood-Dark Track amply illustrates, is intricate in the extreme, his background a mélange every bit as mixed as Humbert Humbert’s “salad of racial genes.” One of his grandfathers was a slightly shady Turkish businessman, the other an Irish nationalist and member of the IRA—the “old” IRA, that is, which won, more or less, the War of Independence in the early 1920s, and went on through succeeding decades to fight for Irish unification, among other things, becoming in time the “new” IRA, the one we all know about.
O’Neill was born in Cork, but as a small child lived with his parents in various places abroad, including Mozambique, Turkey, and Iran, and, from the age of six, in the Netherlands, where he attended French- and English-speaking schools. Afterward he studied law at Girton College, Cambridge, and became a barrister at the English bar, and practiced law for ten years in London, before moving to New York and settling there in 1998. To say he has lived a peripatetic life is an understatement, even in our deracinated times. Hence his well-nigh obsessional search for his family roots, as chronicled in Blood-Dark Track. In that book O’Neill carried out a deep trawl through the lives and times of his Irish and Turkish grandfathers, their families, their jobs, their politics, and their strangely similar histories. It is a troubled work, as dark as the times and events that it investigates.
Netherland, too, with its strong echoes of The Great Gatsby, was concerned with deracination and the search for authenticity. Described by James Wood in The New Yorker as “one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read,” the novel tells of the efforts of a Trinidadian-Indian immigrant to the United States, the big-time hustler Chuck Ramkissoon, to make New York a center for international cricket and thereby complete the process of civilization that he thinks America sorely in need of. Chuck’s colorful and ultimately tragic story is told to us by another immigrant, this one Dutch. Hans van den Broek is an oil-futures analyst married to, separated from, and ultimately reunited with a successful English lawyer, with whom, after the Twin Towers atrocity, he moves into the Chelsea Hotel. When the separation comes, his wife goes back home to London with their young son, leaving Hans on his own in New York, where he feels lost and adrift in the maimed city.
When the book was published, to wide acclaim, it was hailed as the September 11 novel the world imagined it had been waiting for.* Certainly the demolished Twin Towers loomed over the narrative, but their terrible fate was only one of a multiplicity of topics that O’Neill was addressing; indeed, it could be argued that chief among those topics was not modern-day barbarism but that oldest of old-fashioned novelistic concerns, the possibility, or impossibility, of living one’s life as a romantic adventure. In his quest for transcendence, Chuck is every bit as anguished as Jay Gatsby standing in the dark in front of his mansion with his arms stretched out in silent yearning toward the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. The American dream may have gone sour for millions of Americans, but for its transient immigrant population, so it seems, it is still vividly persuasive.
The unnamed Zurich-born Swiss-American lawyer who is the narrator of The Dog
—who is, indeed, the Dog himself—has a first name beginning with X, so that is what we shall call him, for convenience. He has fled New York and settled, if that is the word, among the questionable wonders of Dubai, after the disastrous and humiliating end of a nine-year affair with Jenn, a fellow corporate lawyer. One of the couple’s insoluble problems, not harped upon, is that of the two, Jenn was more successful at her job, and certainly more determined, if not downright ruthless. Indeed, Jenn is tough not only in her professional life but also in her relations with our hapless hero. When their affair ends, after X decides, Bartleby-fashion, that it doesn’t suit him to give a sperm sample—a wonderfully comic set-piece that O’Neill might have made more of—she cleans out their joint bank accounts, leaving him next to penniless.
Lucky for X, then, or so it seems, that “in early 2007, in a New York City cloakroom,” he runs into an old friend from student days in Ireland, one Eddie Batros, scion of a super-rich Lebanese family, who soon afterward offers him a job as “a Batros family trustee (‘to keep an eye on our holdings, trusts, investment portfolios, etc.’).” This will require X to move to Dubai, “where the Batros Group and indeed some Batros family members were nominally headquartered.” X is moved to tears, literally, by the offer and by Eddie’s heartfelt—though e-mailed—declaration of trust in his pal from Dublin days: “I know of no more honest man than you.” Somehow, X being X, and Eddie obviously—to us—being Eddie, and this being the kind of novel that from the start it obviously is, we just know that in the end everything will go horribly wrong.
O’Neill, in this book, has come of age as a novelist. Netherland, for all its ambitions, many of which were fully achieved, was, as Zadie Smith in her review pointed out, an “anxious novel” written in a language “genteel and faintly archaic.” Smith writes:
In the end what is impressive about Netherland is how precisely it knows the fears and weaknesses of its readers. What is disappointing is how much it indulges them. Out of a familiar love, like a lapsed High Anglican, Netherland hangs on to the rituals and garments of transcendence, though it well knows they are empty.
This is shrewd, and all too true. In the earlier novel, O’Neill seemed to conceive of himself as a late entrant to the high consistory of post-Victorian novelists, practitioners of what Zadie Smith calls “lyrical Realism,” whose sad duty it is to render a fallen and chaotic world in a language—“genteel and faintly archaic”—washed at for so long by the filthy modern tide that its authenticity has been thoroughly undermined, so that it can only have any force nowadays by being put at the service of a sustained and languid irony. In The Dog, the mongrel that O’Neill triumphantly is takes hold of the material and the language by which it is manipulated and gives the whole thing a good vigorous shake. One recalls Saul Bellow remarking how in his early novels he tried to be Flaubert, but then, with The Adventures of Augie March, he decided just to let rip.
The consequence of O’Neill’s letting rip is something that, even at this early stage of its life, looks a lot like a comic masterpiece. The style he has devised for his semi-dystopian tale is a glorious amalgam of the demotic and the dandified. There are echoes here of J.G. Ballard and Martin Amis—what baleful fun Amis would have in Dubai!—of Bellow and Nabokov, of Woody Allen and Don DeLillo and Philip Roth when he was funny, of Wittgenstein—yes, Wittgenstein—and W.B. Yeats: “The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Everything turns to crap.”
O’Neill is one of those rare writers who is not made nervous by the richness and the endless potential of literary language. There are sentences here of such meandering complexity, animadversions worthy of Proust at his wordiest, that the mind blanks two thirds of the way through them—the mind blanks, but the belly laughs. The Dog is as mordantly funny as the best of stand-up comedy. It is also as blessedly disdainful of plot—has life got a plot?—as one of Henry James’s late immensities.
Much of the comedy, and indeed some of the mastery, is supplied by the setting. Googling “dubai,” X comes upon a bewildering phantasmagoria:
I couldn’t believe my eyes, in part because I was not actually meant to believe my eyes or was meant to believe them in a special way, because many of the image results were not photographs of real Dubai but, rather, of renderings of a Dubai that was under construction or as yet conceptual. In any case I was left with the impression of a fantastic actual and/or soon-to-be city, an abracadabrapolis in which buildings flopped against each other and skyscrapers looked wobbly or were rumpled or might be twice as tall and slender as the Empire State Building, a city whose coastline featured bizarre man-made peninsulas as well as those already-famous artificial islets known as The World, so named because they were grouped to suggest, to a bird’s eye, a physical map of the world; a city where huge stilts rose out of the earth and disappeared like Jack’s beanstalk, three hundred meters up, into a synthetic cloud. Apparently the cloud contained, or would in due course contain, a platform with a park and other amenities.
The joke, the black joke, of course, is that Dubai, like the rest of the world, ground spectacularly to a halt in the Great Crash of 2008, and might have sunk without trace into the Arabian sands—X gives a halfway reconciled expat’s defensive nod to Ozymandias, King of Kings—had not its cannier, less overweening, and richer neighbors in the United Arab Emirates reached deep into their piles of petro-dollars and saved it from its own excesses. X, however, is loyal to his place of refuge, which, did he but know it, will prove all too temporary. “I do not align myself with the disparagers,” he declares.
On the other hand, he does see the dispiriting outrageousness of the place: “Dubai’s undeclared mission is to make itself indistinguishable from its airport.” O’Neill has rich sport with the local peculiarities of custom and usage. Let us drop into the middle of one of those jumbo, mock-lawyerese sentences mentioned above:
…contrary to its accommodating and modern appearance, for the non-national the emirate is a vast booby trap of medieval judicial perils, and Johnny Foreigner must especially take great care when interacting with local citizens (who constitute only 10 percent or so of the population) because de facto there is one law for Abdul Emirati and another for Johnny Foreigner, so that, for example, if Johnny is involved in an automobile collision with Abdul, responsibility for damage caused will in practice not be determined in accordance with familiar qualitative assessments of the acts and omissions of the parties involved but in accordance with considerations of identity, the local concept (supposedly alien to the person accustomed to Romano-Judeo-Christian jurisprudence) being that the applicability of the duty of care (known to some as the neighbor principle) is subject to modification by the nationalitative interrelation of the involved parties. I.e., it’s not what you do, it’s who you are vis-à-vis the person who does unto you or unto whom you do.
Eventually it will be one, or indeed a number, of those medieval legal booby traps that X falls headlong into, when the Batros family gets caught with its hands in the till—or, rather, in the washing machine—and he has to be the fall guy and take the rap.
But that fall into perdition is a long way off, and meanwhile there are superb set-pieces to be savored, such as X’s abortive visit—when he was still with Jenn—to the IVF clinic where he waits among “a sadness of masturbators, as I will collectively name them,” to offer up his sample of sperm. However, the clinic is a downer—“Onan himself would have found the setup a challenge”—and when the pornography on offer fails in its stiffening effect, X gives up and returns home to break the news to Jenn. Who takes it badly. “I want a baby—you give me a baby! You owe me.” This from a woman who, at the outset of their relationship, told X in offhand but no uncertain terms that the last thing she wanted was a child, just as the second-last thing she wanted was a dog.
Jenn is a wonderful and terrifying monster, one of those über-bitches straight out of Mailer-Bellow-Roth, for the creation of which O’Neill is likely to get a hodload of feminist brickbats flung at his head:
“You wait until I’m having fertility treatment, and then you quit? Oh, boy. It’s like you’ve done this on purpose. Is that it? I’m right, aren’t I? You’ve done this on purpose.”…She tore off her clothes and bent over and spread her ass cheeks, and said, “Fuck me! Go on! Fuck me! Can you do that? Get your cock out like a man! You fucking asshole! You coward! You had to wait until now? What’s the matter? You don’t like pussy? You fucking psychopathic asshole.”
For all that, X continues, in his Dubian exile, to give Jenn the benefit of the doubt: “Even as I understood the doghouse as an outbuilding of the phony coupledom for which surely both of us were responsible, it was clearly a doghouse built by me, with my name on it.” X’s trouble with women is systemic, it seems. Even the Eastern European prostitutes in whose company he finds intermittent and melancholy relief turn out in the end to be unworthy of him. And then there is the curious case of Mrs. Ted Wilson.
Ted Wilson, Mr. Ted Wilson, is an enigma at the heart of the book, a figure at once humdrum and uncrackably mysterious. We first encounter him as “the Man from Atlantis,” a legendary scuba diver—X also dives—who spends more time underwater than on land, who always dives alone, and who dives deeper and into more dangerous zones than anyone else would dare to go. He lives in The Situation, the Amisianly named apartment block where X also lodges. We are given one glimpse of Wilson, in an elevator, after which he disappears, never to be seen or heard from again.
Then, one seemingly momentous day, Wilson’s wife, who is referred to throughout as Mrs. Ted Wilson, turns up at X’s door, convinced that he is an old scuba-diving buddy of her husband’s and must know where he has gone to and why. The encounter, which reads like a dropped scene from Antonioni’s L’Avventura, starts off with the suggestion of a possible future romance between X and the forsaken woman, and ends in a violent argument, provoked entirely by Mrs. Ted Wilson’s aggressiveness, which causes X in his fury to hurl against the wall a plastic jar of Umbrian lentils—the detail is typical of O’Neill’s deadpan humor. “There was an unusual brown explosion as the jar burst.”
Mrs. Ted Wilson does appear again, tangentially, but never fulfils the promise, for good or ill, suggested by that strange, jagged scene. What or who is she meant to be? Is she meant to be anyone or anything at all, other than who and what she is, an ordinary man’s ordinary wife, notable only for the fact that her husband has vanished into the desert air? The incident, fraught with significance yet devoid of meaning, is reminiscent of one of Don DeLillo’s more studied and burnished conundrums. Here, and frequently elsewhere in the book, the suspicion arises that far from being the fundamentally decent poor sap that he pretends to be, X is a Bartleby with ideas, and a moral sense, above his station. Everybody eventually lets him down, but a man can only be let down who has set himself up in a high place.
The Dog is, as we gradually discover, something of a trap for the unwary. It seems, on the surface, a brilliantly wrought but commonplace comedy of post-feminist maledom, in which an essentially inoffensive, well-meaning but clumsy homme moyen sensuel, more Candide than Caligula, falls foul of modern-day mores, or lack of.
The surface, however, hides shadowy depths, where even Ted Wilson might find himself helplessly adrift. In the book’s opening pages X relates how, in desperate search of enlightenment about why it is Jenn who feels humiliated by the ending of the relationship, he visits websites “dedicated to modern psychological advances” and, in particular, discussion sites where he might achieve wisdom through the shared experiences of others. What he finds, however, is a Babel ablaze with accusation, recrimination, and plain abuse that is, he confesses, frightening to behold. “Apparently the torch of knowledge, conserved through the ages by monks and scholars…, now was in the hands of an irresistible horde of arsonists.”
The world, in short, has turned into one vast Dubai, a city of false wonders all at sea in a desert, where the dream of modern life has turned into a futuristic nightmare in which everything is bigger, taller, wider, deeper, richer than anything anywhere else, a place whose “blank past was a great ‘story-telling’ opportunity,” as Ted Wilson, history scholar turned PR man, has it. X, who at the close will come to realize that he has no story to tell that is worth hearing or that will convince anyone of his authenticity and his worth, is shocked by the pass that matters have come to. Contemplating the essentially synthetic nature of the city he finds himself exiled in, he is filled with amazement and dismay at his own naivety.
I hadn’t understood that it’s no longer officially denied that history is cooked up. I’m fully aware that country branding is as old as Genesis, but have we become so despairing that we openly boast of our frauds on the facts? Jeepers creepers, whatever happened to lip service and the ceremony of innocence? Do we no longer require of our governors that at the very least they dissemble their motives and spare us, if nothing else, shame? Evidently not. Evidently we live in a world in which deep thinkers or investigative journalists are no longer required to bring to light the mechanisms by which our world, and our sense of it, is controlled. The controllers, like those buildings that wallow in their pipes and ducts, now jubilantly disclose their inner workings.
Jeepers creepers, indeed.