Dazzling in the desert: Dubai skyline. Photo: Getty
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Lost in Dubai: Joseph O’Neill’s Booker Prize-longlisted new novel

Although the book has no plot to speak of, it keeps extending false hope, writes Leo Robson.

The Dog 
Joseph O’Neill
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

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times