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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Fifteen Dogs

by
André Alexis


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Fifteen Dogs



Title: Fifteen Dogs
Author: André Alexis
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015
Length: 171 pages
Availability: Fifteen Dogs - US
Fifteen Dogs - UK
Fifteen Dogs - Canada
Fifteen Dogs - India

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting premise; fine writing

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Globe and Mail . 10/4/2015 José Teodoro
The Guardian A 9/12/2015 Jonathan Gibbs
The Independent . 29/11/2015 Peter Carty
World Lit. Today . 9-10/2015 Ryann Gordon


  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)t is precisely because of this dogness and the contrast it engenders that these dogs’ struggle with intelligence speaks to us so acutely of what it means to be human." - José Teodoro, The Globe and Mail

  • "It’s a grand thing, then, that this spry novel by Canadian André Alexis spends its 160 pages repeatedly defying expectations. (...) I’m far from being a dog person, but as a book person I loved this smart, exuberant fantasy from start to finish." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Guardian

  • "Alexis excels at sparking drama from collisions between the canine and the human. He is also well versed in Greek myth and legend, yet where Fifteen Dogs really succeeds is on an allegorical level. (...) (A)s thought-provoking as it is enjoyable. In sum, this is the dog’s bollocks." - Peter Carty, The Independent

  • "In posing the question of whether animals would die happier with the capacity of human consciousness, Alexis provides a bleak yet revitalizing tale of human mortality and the gift, or curse, of superior intelligence." - Ryann Gordon, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Fifteen Dogs begins with the gods Apollo and Hermes having beers in a Toronto pub. They discuss the nature of humanity, and wonder what it would be like if animals had human intelligence -- and come up with a bet:

     - I'll wager a year's servitude, said Apollo, that animals -- any animal you choose -- would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.
       Apollo believes human intelligence is, at best: "an occasionally useful plague", but Hermes isn't convinced, and takes the bet -- with odds that would seem to strongly favor him: "if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win" (though they haven't settled how many animals, or what kind, are to be converted at that point yet). Passing by a veterinary clinic where fifteen dogs have been left overnight, for various reasons, they settle on this batch of trial-subjects, endowing them -- presto -- with human intelligence.
       So Fifteen Dogs starts off with fifteen dogs that suddenly find themselves with human intelligence, but it's perhaps worth pointing out that the bet is only decided at their death; true, according to the terms, it would be enough if the first to keel over died happy but Alexis draws things out to a rather bitter end and it will eventually (many, many years later) come down to the last dog standing. Meaning, also, that while the story starts with fifteen dogs it is not a happy-dog story, and there are less than fifteen soon, and they keep dying, often in rather ugly ways; perhaps realistic in this regard, Fifteen Dogs is a horribly sad story, too. (It also suggests that this book is less about intelligence (a somewhat muddled concept in the novel, in any case) or specifically human consciousness than mortality, and what we make of our lives.)
       The majority of the fifteen dogs leave the clinic as a pack -- apparently human intelligence isn't quite that individualistic, for one thing --, but in establishing a sense of order this too is winnowed down to size fairly quickly, leaving a smaller group living and foraging together, as well as -- then and later -- some strays more or less on their own.
       The attitudes and reactions towards their new-found consciousness differ, from suddenly poetic Prince to pack-leader Atticus, who is disturbed by these changes in him and those with him:
The canine was not dying in him or the eleven with him. Rather, it was being obscured by the new thinking, the new perspectives, the new words. These needed to be pushed aside, like curtains before a necessary vantage.
       So then also Atticus:
already had a notion of what an ideal or pure dog might be: a creature without the flaws of thought.
       There's only his way or the highway (metaphorical and/or eternal), so those that cling to the new-found intelligence they've been endowed with don't fare so well. While Atticus and his smaller band try to cling to the old ways, and survive in the (Toronto-)wild, ur-doggie-style, others do seek out human company, for shorter and longer periods. Some even establish close relationships with humans, though it's the rare human that can actually see that the dogs truly possess intelligence (and aren't, for example, simply parroting words).
       Alexis' canine characters aren't merely pulling off talking-dog acts; he does try to imagine a different species endowed with human consciousness. Plausibly, some human concepts and behavior continue to be incomprehensible to the dogs, who continue to see things from their vantage point. Used to relationships that are structured entirely around the concept of status, they don't readily understand human reactions in many circumstances. Or, on a more basic level, they can't understand human cleaning-fastidiousness -- why would anyone wash dishes when they could let all that goodness accumulate ?
       Alexis does manage to create rich dog-characters, whether they cling to some concept or ideal of the primal-canine, like Atticus, or try to understand and utilize their new-found intelligence and consciousness, like Majnoun and Prince. But the thought-experiment on offer here is also rather hopelessly muddled, from the terms of the bet -- indeed, the very concept of dying 'happy' -- to the nature of the 'human intelligence' and consciousness the animals have been endowed with. Alexis does well with his characters -- not surprisingly, thinking and talking dogs and Greek gods are fun material to work with -- and is good with the poignant observations and detail, but it doesn't all really add up.
       Despite cutting down the numbers at a steady clip, Fifteen Dogs has some trouble juggling so many characters. In some cases Alexis barely bothers -- several dogs barely register at all -- but in separating them he also has to shift his focus, and some certainly don't get enough (or the proper) attention; some of their adventures are essentially entirely separate stories, variations on his fundamental theme that feel a bit awkwardly all not-quite-fit together. Occasional divine interference further muddies these waters. A lot of this is very nicely done -- but, like Prince's poems with their Oulipian twists, has an arbitrary feel to it, and the novel as the whole is an odd mix of the very carefully planned (as suggested by Prince's poems, each one holding, hidden, one of the fifteen's names) and what seems like it's just being made up along the way.
       The fundamental question the novel ostensibly addresses also poses a problem -- for one thing because it's never clear enough what the novel's premise (in the form of the bet), actually is, with terms like 'human intelligence' and 'happiness' left more or less undefined (Alexis does try to show more than tell (and he does so quite nicely), and yet again this proves to be poor writerly advice: certain things -- especially such essentials -- simply need spelling out). While much of the detail of how the dogs find themselves transformed and then approach life differently (or try not to) is nicely done, as thought-experiment on the larger scale Fifteen Dogs certainly disappoints.
       Alexis is a fine writer, and much of Fifteen Dogs impresses; it's also moving (albeit somewhat cheaply: offing dog after dog -- and so many ! -- is an easy way to break the reader's heart). Many of the stories and scenes in the novel are very good -- but it doesn't quite work or come fully together as a novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 November 2015

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Links:

Fifteen Dogs: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Canadian author André Alexis was born in Trinidad in 1957.

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© 2015 the complete review

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