The Dog

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The Dog
256 pages; Pantheon
The central figure in Joseph O'Neill's laconic modern fable The Dog (Pantheon) has much in common with the antihero of the author's acclaimed 2008 novel, Netherland. In that book, the main character is a banker estranged from his wife and disconnected from his city. Here, the unnamed protagonist is a newly single Manhattan lawyer whose romantic woes have so traumatized him that he believes he's been "seen through—seen through all the way into my odious male nucleus." Feeling alienated on his home turf, he opts for self-exile, accepting a position as wealth manager and "family trustee" for an outrageously rich college friend in Dubai, where he takes up residence in a luxurious but soulless apartment complex called the Situation. There, he spends much of his time submitting to the ministrations of his massage chair, the Pasha Royale X400™, only gradually awakening to the spectacular emptiness of his job, which consists largely of approving documents so meaningless that he orders a set of rubber stamps and embossers to make the work seem more significant.

Dubai's weird mix of old and new, high and low, includes the world's tallest building and a stateless class of people known as bidoons. Hiring a bidoon named Ali as his assistant, the narrator perceives how radically their prospects differ: "He is never going to be one of the Uncompromising Few. He will always be one of the Compromising Many." But the narrator also begins to comprehend that even the lowest of the low may not be as badly off as, say, Alain, the pudgy teenage member of the family whose weigh-ins he's ordered to supervise.

How Alain and Ali are treated leads one to wonder who exactly the "dog" of the title is: Someone others look down on? A person, like the narrator, who's forced to carry out unappealing tasks? Or is it the proverbial shaggy dog, meaning there is no intended point or moral to this book? If the latter, rest assured: Even though O'Neill isn't drawing any clear conclusions, he has drawn a fine, complex portrait of a modern-day soul in despair.
— Bethanne Patrick