An unnamed lawyer messes up his professional and by extension private life in New York, and so takes up a job offer in Dubai to escape from it, a venture that ultimately fails. The Dog reads like one gigantic, long-winded anecdote, a fact not helped by its excessive use of brackets (sometimes amounting up to six consecutive closing parentheses), and that there are no chapters per se.
Or so one might think. As a matter of fact, The Dog is one of those novels that seem daunting because they have no major point of reference: the plot does indeed plod along; the main character is more or less reduced to a plot device that serves as an expositional point for an exploration of ethics, whereas action is largely inexistent. The author has in fact worked as a barrister for ten years; this explains the presence of lengthy and tedious passages that read like a legal document. Additionally, the technique absolutely complements the underlying theme of the novel: the style binds into the alienation the narrator experiences both in New York and in Dubai. He is dogged by moral qualms and musings, seemingly incapable of doing something without analysing it to bits. Another point of possible criticism is that The Dog is strongly reminiscent of Max Frisch’s Homo Faber. Both protagonists are slaves to their powers of reasoning, and both of their rational worlds are shaken by the irrational. In fact, they even end with the exact same message of “They are coming.”
Once again, it would be wrong to simply dismiss the novel as some kind of discount Homo Faber. The Frisch question is quasi redundant because the protagonist’s Swiss heritage is referred to multiple times, implying that The Dog is a homage rather than an instance of plagiarism. The novel self-ironises the narrator’s tendency to explain each and every detail:
He explained to me that an enzyme was a catalyst of chemical reactions, then explained what a catalyst was, then exactly described which enzymes he was using and which particular catalysis they were promoting. This excess of information was so soothing I nearly fell asleep.
The author’s use of irony is humorous rather than downright funny, and is based on tongue-in-cheek observations of everyday social interaction, and the odd quirks people sometimes have.
Further novelistic virtues are technique and diction: O’Neill manages to control the pace of this story beautifully by means of near-masterful punctuation. Sometimes, the resulting sentences are short and controlled; sometimes, they flow on in a page-long, almost Proustian fashion. While not necessarily agreeable to read, it is hard to ignore the technical elegance; moreover, O’Neill’s use of diction is downright exquisite. Some of his language – ‘brouhaha’ for instance – draws on words that are terminally underused, which results in an impressive lack of repetition. Moreover, the author seems to have a good sense for assonance and consonance, which alleviates the tediousness of the pace and allows for greater immersion. However, The Dog does presuppose that the reader has an extensive vocabulary, and preferably knows more than one language: O’Neill, who is trilingual himself, occasionally employs sentences and expressions in French, making the protagonist’s Swiss-French heritage more believable.
A final positive point is that, while The Dog contains a lot of ethical musing, it does its best not to preach. All in all the novel is very smart: it is certainly tough to read at times, and presupposes a certain degree of both knowledge and intelligence. It is unlikely that someone who has no interest in grammatical technique will find it thrilling, but the prose is moulded beautifully, and complements the overall tone to a point where it well deserves the time and attention needed to read it.