Fifteen Dogs. Andre Alexis.

Alexis, Andre, Fifteen Dogs. Coach House Toronto, 2015. F; 10/16

Intelligent dogs and Greek gods? Sounded to me like a recipe for silliness. If this hadn’t won the Giller prize I would never have touched it. But three pages into my Kindle sample I was hooked, and it only got better. The dogs, partly human, get doggier and the gods, also partly human, get more arrogant, offhand and conniving. Just off center stage there are a few fictional human humans to remind us what we’re dealing with: it’s not about gods and dogs or a god-dog palindrome. Yes it gets sentimental, but for me it’s got real charm.

Hermes and Apollo, old friends to us classical scholars, are bored chilling in a bar in Toronto and decide to bet on the value of human intelligence. They figure they’ll give a random bunch of dogs human insight, and if, goes the bet, just one of those pooches dies happy, Hermes wins. Winner gets the other guy for his slave for a year. Apollo is thinking why would anybody want to be human? They all expire in misery.

So the gods embed human consciousness in 15 random dogs sleeping in a veterinary hospital and so-modified the dogs wake up at night, escape from the place using their new smarts, and in respect of their relationships all hell breaks loose. There develops an Animal Farm dynamic including struggle for leadership and attitude about other members, but through it all the dogs remain biological dogs. They smell one another’s rear ends, at times eat shit, hate and are contemptuous of cats, but above all respect status in the pack. And the imposed human aspect twists certain individuals into pack pariahs.

The dogs form relationships with humans, and Alexis gives them a credible but completely different though strangely similar point of view that isn’t quite human. Of a willow tree seen with his temporary “mistress”, one of the dogs:

could not contemplate the swaying branches without wishing to bite them. Minus the desire to bite. Nira felt somewhat similar. For her the trees were like mammoths in leaf: ancient, slow, the last of something imperial, though of course they were not. They were only trees.

These human-minded dogs also have a different concept of time:

After the change, each of the fifteen (dogs) had had to fend for themselves against a new Time, a time that knew how to make its passage felt… there was little to protect him from the excruciation that that duration can be.

The dogs’ point of view of us human beings contrasts with that of the gods. But both are bewildered at what we do and how we think, and presume we are fatally flawed, or at least don’t seem to properly understand fundamental facts about ourselves and the world.

Many years ago I was on a walk in Devon when someone blithely commented on animals, in this case sheep in a rolling grassy field in front of us, “No thoughts of lamb chops”. Lovely that the lambs, our pet dogs, and all dumb creatures don’t know they’re going to die. But these dogs now foresee death just as we do. And they certainly tend to die off one way or another. Some almost right off the bat of the illnesses they were at the vet for, others killed by others, and finally only one of them is left. Apollo and Hermes agree so far no happy deaths. Who will win the bet?

My daughter lives in the Toronto Beaches, and so I’m familiar with the physical scene of the story’s denoument. That familiarity helped, but still there was a charming aesthetic, dramatic, and philosophical lightly ironic roundness to this novel that carried me through it quickly and happily. Definitely a cut above your run-of-the-mill doggy adventure. 8.9/9.1

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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