Fifteen Dogs: Insufficiently Human


It was tempting to cheat on this one and wait until after bookclub tonight to post my reaction to André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, with the thought that my ideas would be much more refined after discussion with my smart and insightful bookclub friends. But you only have me, and so you’ll have to make do with my pre-discussion, pre-wine interpretation.

Fifteen Dogs has a couple of things to recommend it:

  1. It’s a short read, and so if you’ve lost that just-finished-a-book, self-satisfied glow, you can quickly recapture it within a few hours. (Okay, okay, time-to-completion is hardly a measure of a book’s worth…)
  2. It’s entertaining to engage in the thought experiment of the book. Premise: Apollo and Hermes wager on whether, if granted the intelligence of humans, any animal (though dogs are chosen) can die happy. This latter clause ‘die’ is taken to mean ‘the moment of death,’ and so the book comes to question whether suffering endured has a late-game payoff, what constitutes a happy, or ‘good,’ death and what the contours consequences of human intelligence are for any sentient being: art, warfare, language, shame, etc.

The premise also avoids one of the things I’ve found most objectionable about other novels written from a non-human protagonist point of view: the dogs are meant to be thinking like humans. In other books in this ‘genre,’ the imposition of human lines of thinking (everything from human perceptions of time, language, relationships) is frustrating (if inescapable). Here, however, the point is that the dogs have human-like thought and so any imposition is – albeit unsolicited and lacking in consent – expected.

Following a particular dog’s trials and triumphs is engaging. Sharp description and often humourous descriptions of the dogs’ perceptions of the human world make for entertaining and thought-provoking material.

And yet I’m hesitant to unequivocally recommend it. The first thirty or so pages drag and feel like an awkward attempt to establish the premise. A solid edit – or perhaps beginning with one of the dog’s narratives before returning to this premise-building – could have helped. Likewise I’m not convinced I learned much about my humanity as a consequence of reading. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after taking part in the all-too-human discussion tonight.



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Filed under Book Club, Fiction, Giller prize, Prize Winner

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