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

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

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 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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