The final of five 2015 Giller shortlist reviews, Fifteen Dogs is an examination of the gift/curse that is human consciousness. At times philosophical, at other times horrific, Fifteen Dogs is writer Andre Alexis proving that you can, indeed, teach an old form new tricks.
“What is the good of so much thinking?”
This question–asked by Atticus, an enlightened Neapolitan mastiff–is the thematic center of Andre Alexis’ wonderful new novella, Fifteen Dogs. In turn, it begs other questions: Are we happy? Are we healthy? Are we better or worse off for having to endure it?
At the novella’s outset, the immortal gods Hermes and Apollo are fresh off a debaucherous outing at a Toronto tavern when Hermes wonders if animals would be better or worse off with human consciousness (a somewhat nebulous concept, but you get the idea). Apollo wagers a year of servitude to Hermes that any animal, no matter the breed, would be “even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.” For Hermes to win, just one animal needs to be happy at the end of its life.
Conveniently, fifteen dogs are spending the night at a veterinary clinic just a block away, and so they become the unwitting experiments in this wager between gods.
As with Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Good and Evil, the dogs’ new knowledge quickly turns fractious. Alexis brilliantly uses his central conceit to explore the nature of independence and ego, and how human intelligence ultimately drives us away from canine-like pack mentalities. As we’ve “evolved” we’ve chosen to live increasingly independent lives, mostly because we can. In terms of our day to day lives, we only passively need the support of the herd.
This isn’t so for dogs. Their entire existence is built upon hierarchy. Without it, they’re left with anarchy. “A pack needed unity, and unity meant that all understood the world in the same way or, if not the world, the rules at least.” When certain dogs start branching out and individualizing themselves, certain dogs–Atticus chief among them–start to feel threatened.
I have spoken with all the others, said Atticus. To live as we were meant to live, there must be change. Some may stay. Some must not.
What about the black dog, asked Frack.
He is not one of us, answered Atticus.
It would be better to kill him, said Max.
It’s no accident that the form of “the other” is black. Pardon the pun, but there’s a lot to chew on in this story about race relations and, more generally, how we treat people. Intelligence allows humans to build and grow and mature and evolve, but it also allows us to make judgments and to confuse prejudice with protection.
And then there was the room where the humans bathed and applied chemicals to themselves. The bathroom was fascinating, it being astonishing to watch the already pale beings applying creams to make themselves paler still. Was there something about white that bought status?
As much as you can inject race into the proceedings, there’s so much more meat on the bone when you look at the story in terms of how we deal with differences. The rift among the pack truly starts when a mutt named Prince starts to form language. With language comes social divides, and those who feel left behind start to lash out and re-exert their dominance through physicality.
Eventually Prince starts writing poetry–which is beautiful, lyrical, and somehow still completely canine in its motivations–and this becomes the straw that breaks the dog’s back. Almost literally. Groups are formed, lines and drawn, and efforts are made to preserve what they are and shun the next evolution of what it might mean to be what they are.
For Atticus, all the old pleasures – sniffing at an anus, burying one’s nose where a friend’s genitals were, mounting those with lower status – could no longer be had without crippling self-consciousness.
Atticus is terrified because he can sense that the idea of the canine is being taken away from him. So he uses his new found intelligence to enact rigid rules and codes of conduct; if you don’t follow them, you’ll either be dead, or exiled. On the one hand, intelligence leads to a greater thirst for power. If not a greater thirst, then at least a greater ability to take and abuse that power.
Their gifts may have been laid upon them by two gods, but it is a mortal, Atticus, with whom these dogs must contend.
Fifteen Dogs is really, really good. A modern fable. A future Canadian classic. Worthy of sitting next to the likes of Animal Farm, Call of the Wild, and Watership Down. But just like these other three, I appreciate the quality of Fifteen Dogs without full-on loving it.
I know a few people who have read Fifteen Dogs and it’s clear that each of them had a much more emotional experience with this story than I did. I didn’t really laugh, I didn’t at all cry, I didn’t feel any more or less pained at the thought of a pack of dogs suffering than I would if this story had been called Fifteen Humans. This was a tale I really enjoyed, but I didn’t find myself getting invested in it.
I do, however, find it fascinating that people seem more emotionally attached to this story because these characters are dogs. I’m basing this on nothing more than my own experience with people who’ve read it. Maybe I’m wrong. But if I’m not, that’s so fucked. Why is it any more tragic for dogs to suffer the perils of power and lust and greed than it is for humans? This story is basically happening every day on our streets and almost no one reacts to it. White people can stand in judgment of black people, the strong can dominate the weak, the popular can ostracize the freaks, and we don’t bat an eye. Put furry hair and paws on them and it’s the saddest thing ever.
What, he wondered, did it mean to be human? … What would it be like to be unable to distinguish the smell of snow in winter from the smell of snow in early spring? It was impossible to know a state … by subtracting things in oneself, as if ‘human’ were what is left once the best of a dog has been taken away.
There’s so much to talk about with Fifteen Dogs, way too much to cram into a single blog post. There’s really interesting stuff regarding anti-intellectualism, what it means to feel fulfilled, how the knowledge of our impending deaths changes the way we live, and so much more.
For a deep dive into all of these, please have a listen to my friends Kirt, Tania, and Laura as they discuss the story in-depth on the Write Reads podcast.
Unsurprisingly, I’m not going to tell you who won the bet between Hermes and Apollo, because I want you to read the story for yourself. But no matter what the ending is, no matter what you think of the consciousness question personally, there’s no denying the difficulties that come with the concept of one’s impending death. Just knowing that we will die one day completely changes how we go about our lives, in profoundly beautiful and disgusting ways.
And even more so, that love, above all other things, is worth experiencing in its fullest sense.
He could no more understand what it was to live with death than they could what it was to exist without it. It was this difference that fascinated him; it was at the heart of the gods’ secret love for mortals.
Recommended for Almost Anyone
The Good …
+ An incredible level of empathy by Alexis
+ Interesting concept, well realized
+ Prince, the dog poet, is an outstanding character
The Not So Good …
– I didn’t feel emotionally involved (although most readers seem to)