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book review

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis centres around a bet made between gods on whether human intelligence leads to happiness or misery.Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

André Alexis has gone to the dogs. He's gotten down on all fours, savoured canine experience through Homo sapien senses and emerged with a novel that, like last year's exquisite Pastoral, commences as an inspired lark and only gradually accrues poignancy and trans-mammalian insight.

Fifteen Dogs begins at a Toronto tavern where Hermes and Apollo, well into their cups, make a bet. The gods decide to imbue a handful of animals with human intelligence and linguistic skills. Should any of those animals meet their end happier than they would have otherwise, Apollo must provide Hermes with a year's servitude. If, as Apollo asserts, human intelligence is, at best, "an occasionally useful plague," certain to cause more misery than contentment, Hermes will then become Apollo's servant. Stumbling past a veterinarian's clinic, the gods select 15 pooch patients as the hapless subjects of their wager. Over the course of this novel, slim yet epic in scope, Alexis chronicles the fates of these strangely afflicted beasts, shifting from thought experiment to comic parable to something more delicate, laden with detail, discovery and emotional nuance.

From Jack London's The Call of the Wild to Paul Auster's Timbuktu, it strikes me that the dog novel is by nature picaresque. Dogs, or at least dogs whose lives transpire apart from the constancy of a single human master, are always underdogs, errant creatures at the mercy of the elements, little hobos whose survival relies on some ratio of innate skill and the kindness of strangers. Alexis's dogs' nomadic wanderings are largely confined to the boundaries of High Park and the Beach – like many downtown Torontonians, they never venture north of St. Clair Avenue – but these topographically diverse boroughs provide abundant zones of adventure. Fleeing the clinic immediately after Hermes's and Apollo's divine intervention, the dogs begin their sapient lives as a pack, replete with clearly demarcated hierarchies, settling a coppice as their nocturnal lair and collectively defending themselves against sundry external threats.

It doesn't take long before dissent enters their ranks, most notably with regard to questions of individual liberty versus the comforts of conformity, of embracing the civilizing aspects of their new consciousness versus following a reactionary impulse to restore their old instinct-driven ways.

"What is the good of so much thinking?" asks Atticus, their stoic Neapolitan mastiff leader. Their ostensibly enlightened world remains dog-eat-dog, and much bloodshed and treachery ensues, along with the invention of dog-empathy, dog-politics, dog-wonderment and dog-witticism. Like native Americans in old westerns, the dogs speak without contractions, but within this hard-edged idiom, Prince, a mutt and the pack's resident, much-resented poet, crafts phrases of ebullient lyricism. (Alexis employs a form of dog-oriented poetry originated by the late Oulipo member François Caradec, who once wrote a biography of his dog.) Language – both the one developed by and for the 15 to communicate among themselves, and English, which some eventually endeavour to apprehend – proves an equal source of utility and confusion. With the naming of things comes the fraught practice of transforming raw experience into something more abstract, which incites a wave of anti-intellectualism.

Alexis doggedly investigates his protagonists' singular experience of the sensual world, the draw of pungent odours and omnivorous sexual urges, the enticements of delicacies such as bird shit, "a kind of hard salad sautéed in goose fat." With regard to the dogs' encounters with humans, Alexis has the majority of his protagonists maintain a skeptical distance, calculatedly negotiating this human-canine interdependence that usually involves the exchange of food and shelter for the display of inane tricks.

Does it make me something of a chauvinist that I found the novel's one great exception to this distance to be its most moving passage? Majnoun, a poodle, and Fifteen Dogs's most fully developed character, finds himself in long-term co-habitation with Nira and Miguel, a couple in the Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale. After a troubled getting-to-know-you period in which Majnoun attempts to speak to his mistress in her own language, prompting the terrified Nira to wonder if she's losing her mind or being visited by some malicious supernatural force, a deeply moving friendship is forged, something akin to the more familiar woman-and-dog bond, but also something unprecedented, a sort of spiritual companionship. Or love. Majnoun and Nira exhibit mutual respect and take interest in each other's passions. There's something funny and touching about Majnoun's appreciation of Tokyo Story, one of Nira's favourite movies, despite its absence of smells and paucity of dogs.

I won't spoil whether Hermes or Apollo wins the wager. What I will say is that there's no way to address the question of self-consciousness without acknowledging the unease gained from knowledge of one's inevitable death and "the excruciation that duration can be." Despite the radical change in their way of being in the world, Alexis's 15 dogs retain a great deal of their dogness, "running because the sheer pleasure of some great thing could not be expressed otherwise." Yet it is precisely because of this dogness and the contrast it engenders that these dogs' struggle with intelligence speaks to us so acutely of what it means to be human. The accumulation of experience tells us who we are, and the passing of those experiences haunt us with what we've lost.

José Teodoro is a critic and playwright.

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