The Lost Dog provides one of the best lessons in writing one could hope to find. If there is ever a book you can hand to a creative writing student and say: “this is what happens when you try to be profound at the expense of writing a story. This is what happens when you let florid, pretentious prose marry complex plot lines without thought to what the reader wants to read.” If there is one lesson to learn from this book it is this: less is most definitely more. As G.K. Chesterton so wisely put it: “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”
Tom Loxley is a childless divorcee, an insipid, self-absorbed scholar trying to finish his book on Henry James. And when his dog goes missing, he is plunged into a quandary of self analysis which leads to lots of grand sounding thoughts and few real self-discoveries. His mother is growing old and infirm, and he must confront the steady march of time. It is all very clichéd. I hate it when people criticise the ‘literary’ novel, but reading this book I can see why they do. I like books where not much happens, where there is a meditation on life and art and other metaphysical concepts, but this is just boring.
Having lost his dog, Tom is cast back seven months, to reminisce upon the time when he walked into an art gallery and met the mysterious artist, Nelly Zhang. Soon he is visiting Nelly in her ramshackle warehouse home-come-studio, and becoming increasingly fascinated with both Nelly, and her art. The two fall in love and, fast forward seven months, search wildly for the eponymous lost dog. Confused? So was I. Especially since, interspersed with these two plots, there are many others. There is Tom’s bland childhood in India; the unremarkable search for said dog; a mystery surrounding the end of Nelly’s marriage; the invincible march of old-age upon Tom’s octogenarian mother; an investigation into the connections between art and life. The Lost Dog reads like an over-knotted shoelace; just when you think you are about to get into one of the plots, you find it densely tangled in another. And with the possible exception of the mystery surrounding Nelly’s marriage (which occasionally threatens to develop into a full-blown story but is repeatedly tugged back into the mundanity of the other plots) none of these seems to lead anywhere. The knot is impenetrable.
This is a book which is complex for complexities sake, over-written for the sake of pretension. Tom doesn’t go shopping, he strolls “along packed aisles” marvelling “at the ease with which articles changed status, transmuted by the alchemy of desire.” In a garden he encounters box hedges that contain “the kind of roses whose icy perfection was impervious to common rain.” When he sees sodden fields, they resemble “a bitch who has whelped too often.”
At one point, de Kretser has Tom ruminate that: “What he missed in images…was the passage of time. ‘Stories are about time. But looking’s a present-tense activity. We live in an age where everything’s got to be now, because consumerism’s based on change. Images seem complicit with that somehow.”
How odd then that The Lost Dog seems to have absolutely no consistent sense of either plot development, or time. Perhaps that is the point: that art and stories are different beasts. If so, this is a perfect demonstration of that. Even though the chapters are split into days of the week, there is no linear plot whatsoever. Because of the shifting time of the various plots, it isn’t even clear when Tom is searching for the dog, and when other things in his life are happening. I was about halfway through when I realised there was a seven month shift in time between some of the events. And in the past the dog is barely mentioned and clearly not a cornerstone of his life.
And this is the biggest problem: the dog is not a character in itself, but rather a literary metaphor. It is this which I found most frustrating. How are we supposed to sympathise with the loss of Tom’s dog when it doesn’t even have a name? The absent canine is referred to simply as “the dog.” Tom professes to suffer greatly from the dogs disappearance, but he doesn’t seem to have developed any sort of relationship with the dog before this. In his eyes, it isn’t even worthy of a name.
I could write for hours on what I found annoying in The Lost Dog, but Sam Jordison, writing for the Guardian’s Booker Prize blog, sums it up well:
“There are more annoyances. First: an overuse of colons. Coupled with incredibly short sentences. Full of portent. But signifying what? Nothing.
Sometimes: the problem is compounded in painfully short paragraphs.
Sometimes: another crime. Certain words are clumsily – painfully – repeated and twisted all up into oddly ungrammatical sentences.”
At one point Tom refers to his youth as “odorous, unhygienic and refusing to be disposed of with decent haste.” He need not limit himself to his youth, his pseudo middle-age crisis, in my mind, cannot be disposed of with decent haste either.
It is not all bad. There are some wonderful observations. At one point Nelly argues “doesn’t setting out to reject the past guarantee you’ll never be free of it? It’s like being modern means walking with a built-in limp.’” But these are lost amid the knot of confusion and banality.
A.S. Byatt has written that, “whatever the literary equivalent of perfect pitch it, Michele de Kretser has it.” On this evidence she performs month long operatic works, and it is too tiring to sit and listen.