Wednesday, July 14, 2010

It's a Dog's Life (and Death)

Awhile ago, in an ill-fated quest to find out what George Burns looked like when he was young (answer: he never was), I discovered the above clip from the classic TV game show What's My Line? For those of you who, like me, were not glued to the tube between 1950 and 1967, the conceit of the show was that each week, blindfolded celebrity panelists would question visitors to see if they could guess their occupations. In addition to ordinary folks (a bricklayer, a schoolteacher, a telephone operator), each episode would also feature a "mystery guest," someone who was famous enough that the panelists were expected not to guess just his occupation, but his actual identity as well. All of this seems straightforward enough – "will they figure it out or won't they?" and "who will guess first?" are classic sources of suspense, enough to keep viewers tuned in.

But here's what I found fascinating. What makes the clip above so entertaining is not the contrived game show scenario and the tension that it automatically manufactures. What makes it entertaining is the way that scenario allows Burns to create and develop a memorable character, his own persona as a game show contestant. The makers of the show even bend their own rules, with Burns answering questions inaccurately ("I'm Nat King Cole") and one of the panelists nearly removing his blindfold mid-interrogation, in order to get the most mileage out of this characterization. These game show makers understood something that's largely been forgotten by their contemporary counterparts: the outcome hardly matters. Viewers watch a show because of what the situation – as gimmicky as it might be – allows individuals to reveal about themselves.

On the surface, it might seem like an episode of a game show from 1961 and a novel published in 2003 have little in common. But when I recently read Carolyn Parkhurst's The Dogs of Babel, it got me thinking about how a similar phenomenon plays itself out in a fictive context.

The Dogs of Babel squarely fits into the category of "high concept," a label which all too often seems to mean "a concept that film or publishing executives thought up while high." Here's Babel's elevator pitch: A man's wife falls out of a tree in the backyard to her death. The only witness to this event is the couple's dog. In order to find out if his wife's death was an accident or a suicide, the man decides (get ready) to teach the dog to talk. Duh-duh-duuuum!

This sounds like the script for a Twilight Zone episode that Rod Serling rejected for its implausibility, and to be honest, I didn't expect to care much for this book. (It didn't help that I had heard the publisher referred to it as The Lovely Dog Bones – a backhanded compliment, in my opinion.) But much to my surprise, I found that it did something I wasn't anticipating: like the George Burns episode of What's My Line, this novel has the good sense to keep the emphasis off the contrived central mysteries of its "hook" (will he teach the dog to talk or won't he? which was it, accident or suicide?) and on the meaningful specificity of a recognizable human being.

I guess talking dogs are more literary than I realized.

Because, SPOILER ALERT, there isn't any mystery here, not for Paul. He knows before the novel begins that his wife Lexy's death was a suicide: the signs were laid out for him clearly. An unreliable narrator, Paul lies to the police (he claims that his wife never talked about killing herself, when in fact she'd even attempted it in her girlhood) and withholds information from us (he knows, but doesn't mention, that Lexy was pregnant and didn't want to be). His entire quest with the dog is meant to obfuscate, not reveal, this truth – both for the reader and himself.

If this book were written "straight," depicting a grieving husband who does actually teach his dog human language to solve a crime, it would most likely devolve into one of those awful "cozies" so popular in large-print editions, the ones where cats unravel mysteries instead of curtains and romantic relationships are considered consummated when the duo become bridge partners. Which is to say its author would seem desperate and sad. But here, it's Paul who seems desperate and sad. His ultimate salvation comes not when he succeeds on his own terms (he doesn't), but only when he's able to wriggle out from under the edifice of this plot to truthfully observe the thing's absurdity. Parkhurst breaks the rules she sets up in the first few pages, when Paul, narrating, writes, "Simply put, [our dog] knows things I don't. I must do whatever I can to unlock that knowledge... It is my proposal to teach Lorelei to talk." By the end, this turns out to be wrong on both counts: the dog doesn't know anything Paul doesn't, and Paul never goes to any particularly great lengths to endow her with speech. This statement looks like Chekov's "gun on the mantle," an authorial promise to deliver on a certain kind of action by the novel's close. But instead, it's Paul's delusion – a delusion that serves as an excuse for the novel we have in front of us.

And Paul's not the only one who's deluded here: far from it. At its heart, this whole book is about self-delusions and the dubious comforts they provide. On a trip to New Orleans, Lexy is inspired and moved by a visit from a woman she thinks is a fabled ghost. A few pages later she discovers, much to her chagrin, that this spectre was actually a drunk fellow vacationer dressed in old-timey clothes. A society of men Paul encounters have dedicated their lives toward surgically enabling dogs to speak words; their one supposed success story, Dog J, is able to form human consonant sounds, but the noise he makes is nonsense – they only hear language coming from him only because they so desperately want to. Even TV psychics, with their leading questions and their scammy predictions, are taken to task: here, as in life, they can only tell a person what he already knows.

Unlike The Lovely Bones, with its magic fairytale promises of a custom-built afterlife, complete with peppermint stick ice cream and hot posthumous sex, when a person (even a beloved person) dies in Parkhurst's novel, she stays dead, and in her absence she becomes even more unfathomably distant than she was in life. Contemplating ghosts, Paul muses, "It's wishful thinking... If the dead wandered among us, their spirits still present on this earth, what need would we have for grief? Scary as it is, it's what we hope for. How else would we go on living?" Yet at the end of this book, Parkhurst forces him to answer that last question honestly – to find a reason to go on, not in self-deception and fantasy, but in reality.

This book isn't a masterpiece – the dialogue is often clumsily expository, and as a narrator Paul really needs to lay off the rhetorical questions, especially the faux-poetic ones (of his dog, he says, "Who am I to know what heart beats beneath that fur?") and the ones that make the reader want to scream YES, just listen to yourself! ("Am I getting myself into something I might not want to be involved in?" he wonders just before attending a meeting of amateur "canine linguists," led by an incarcerated man nicknamed "the Dog Butcher of Brooklyn.") But the charm here is Parkhurst's interest in investigating a real human experience, rather than pandering to her audience with uncut escapism. There's nothing wrong with a light read as long as it doesn't insult the reader's intelligence. For this one, Parkhurst deserves more than my throwing her a bone – she deserves a pat on the head.

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