Review of ‘The Dog’ by Joseph O’Neill

Published by 4th Estate, 2014

This review appeared in the November 2014 edition Prospect magazine.

 

The title isn’t obvious. The unnamed narrator of this Booker-longlisted novel is neither a Rottweiler, nor, quite, a lapdog. But, as an American in Dubai he is, like that country’s dogs, only there on sufferance. He’s the in-house lawyer of a madly rich Lebanese family. He’s also Everyman. Or “Everywoman (woman includes man),” as he would pedantically put it. The narrator’s nerdy, multi-clausal delineation of his supple yet tenacious conscience is one of the book’s pleasures. But we are subtly asked throughout: would we, facing the brutalities and banalities of Dubai and New York, have felt or done anything very differently?

 

The narrator grudgingly performs enforced non-lawyerly tasks, such as weighing the family’s obese teenage son. He stamps responsibility-disclaimers across questionable legal documents. He is turned off internet porn by stumbling across a real rape. He uncomplicatedly admires the Burj Khalifa skyscraper because it is sublime (in contrast to the “stump” that is One World Trade Centre, New York). He venerates the “abracadabrapolis’’s triumph over the desert, and despises “opinionators” who condemn its “hubris” (“an intensely annoying word only used, in my opinion, by a nose-in-the-air jerk who is about to stride into a manhole”).

 

This is not a novel of plot (the main subplot disappears in the Arabian Gulf), but of insights: ‘Dubai exists in a frothy dialectic with Western unhappiness, rage and frustration – as well as with a thwarted longing for affordable maids, year-round sun, incredibly cheap gas and Russian girls’. Such insight raises the novel above wealth-porn, whilst the implied self-criticism raises it above smugness.