Fourth Estate, 256pp, £16.99
Irish writer Joseph O’Neill came out of nowhere six years ago with Netherland, which won him many admirers. A rapturous and crisply written portrait of the New York cricket community in the months after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, it marked a tremendous advance on its two predecessors, the underpowered comedies This Is the Life and The Breezes. One might have expected O’Neill’s new novel, The Dog, to reverse his forward leap in reputation – if it hadn’t already earned a spot on the Man Booker longlist.
The narrator, whose apparently embarrassing name we never learn, is a lawyer desperate to leave New York after a break-up. In a stroke of luck, he bumps into a university friend who invites him to work as an adviser to his family’s company, which operates for the most part out of Dubai.
On arriving, the narrator, a passionate spinner of “theories”, discovers “an abracadabrapolis” devoted to consumption and also “a vast booby trap of medieval judicial perils”. His eagle eyes are in a nearly permanent state of popping, though in terms of personal conduct, he takes an attitude of “when in Dubai”. Before long, he is living a life of scuba-diving, sex with prostitutes and pedicures, experiences he evokes using numbered lists and an endless supply of parentheses. (One sentence ends: “))))”.)
If the narrator is trying to have his cake and eat it – with a double side order of whipped cream – it is a habit he shares with the author. The opulence of the narrator’s language is intended as an expression of decadence, while his pedantry is intended to reflect his remoteness, as well as his narrowly legalistic approach to matters of morality. But O’Neill wants us to be ravished all the same by the narrator’s constant riffing. Here he is on acting: “It cannot be forgotten that the phase of public pretending is preceded by an initial private phase of pretence in which the person assumes the part of actor.” On the phrase “on the record”: “This mythic tabula on which our deeds are inscribed and preserved . . . Egocentricity! Superstition! Anthropocentricity!” On the Facebook wall: “. . . which served not the enclosing and defensive function suggested by the noun but the contrary function of disclosure and welcome”.
Seasoned spotters of the unreliable, or unstable, narrator may find themselves deafened by alarm bells. “I don’t think this is paranoia,” we read; “It’s all somewhat foggy at this point”; “I sprang out of bed with a madman’s idea of a breakthrough.” Early in the book the narrator says, “Arguably it is a little mad to covertly inhabit a bodiless universe of candour and reception” – a reference to his habit, borrowed from Saul Bellow’s “cracked” intellectual Moses Herzog, of writing irritated memos that he never sends (“mental-mailing”). A reverie in which he imagines driving “into the green deep of the continent, an adventure of gas-station snacks and motel sex and maxed-out credit cards”, is far from the only moment at which he sounds like Humbert Humbert, perhaps the most delusional monologuist in all of literature. However, the numerous hints that the narrator is a fantasist or narcissist are coupled with a refusal to confirm them. If we are supposed to question the character’s testimony, we are given very little guidance as to how.
It is well known that Bellow plus Nabokov equals Martin Amis – and The Dog is heaving with Amisisms. Foreign words. Quoted etymologies. Paired adjectives: “a dull and unseeing eye”, “inappropriate and frivolous demands on my time”, “important and fashionable pedicures”. The words “Brobdingnagian” and “threshold”. Catalogues of synonyms: “Adults are natural policers, prosecutors, fact-finders, judgers”, and so on. Catalogues of options: “Asian babes, Milfs, BBWs, celebrities, extremists . . .” Knowing pomposity: “It is a joy merely to motor on this wonderfully engineered road.” Jokey racism: “the live-in Filipina nanny (Winda? Wanda? Wilda?)”. Colloquialism-meets-repurposed-technical-term-meets-poeticism: “The moon gave the slip to a constabulary of moon-brightened clouds.” Imagined types: “We all know of those gallant volunteers who rush towards a burning train wreck only to suffer lifelong trauma.” The pursuit of the mot juste is never-ending and often successful but the phenomena described are rarely complex enough to justify the effort.
Although the book has no plot to speak of, it keeps extending false hope. The disappearance of a man named Ted Wilson is mentioned repeatedly and Mrs Wilson arrives from the United States with the notion, denied by the narrator, that he and Ted were diving partners. Was the narrator somehow involved? And what about the references to a floundering property scheme called the Astrominium – perhaps this is a cautionary tale about pride and hubris, debt and leverage? Such questions prove to be rhetorical, wishful.
O’Neill is an incorrigible borrower in his own right – as well as Amis, Nabokov and Bellow, there’s plenty here that can be traced to Joseph Heller, Bret Easton Ellis and especially John Updike. O’Neill has learned plenty from Updike – particularly the first-person novels – about evocation and tonal shift but he has also picked up the unfortunate habit of putting dazzle before craft. The reliance on verbal/mental drift is indicated early on when a new section begins, “Speaking of which”, before setting off down another winding road.
Another section lulls you into a false sense of chronology – “What happened next . . .” – before turning around – “. . . is inexplicably preceded, in my mind, by what happened one evening years ago.” That “inexplicably” is especially unendearing. We don’t know why we’re reading what we’re reading and nor does the narrator.
When writers such as Amis or Updike depend entirely on voice, at least it is (mostly) their own voice. And O’Neill is not only using their tools – he is applying them to the same task. Dubai represents to the book’s nameless narrator almost exactly what America represented to Humbert Humbert and Augie March in the 1950s and Rabbit Angstrom in the 1970s and John Self in the 1980s – a land equally in thrall to God and to Mammon, where rules seem made to be exaltedly broken. The result is a novel with zero equity in its own prose style and no way of repaying its debts.
Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman