Suspicious Minds

Suspicious Minds

Joseph O’Neill’s Dubai novel, The Dog.


Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog is a study in paralysis and its close cousin, inertia. The novel’s narrator, who we know only by his first initial, X., is a lawyer: highly employable, well paid and free to roam through the world as he pleases. Yet he feels himself imprisoned by his own mental habits and obsessions. Two of these are intertwined: the fear of doing something wrong, and the belief that unimpeachably correct decisions are impossible. Because he can’t know what effect his actions will have—“one always goes forward in error”—X. tries to keep his decisions as inconsequential as possible. Even the private act of thinking is suspect because, as X. sees it, “to interpret is to misinterpret.” Gossip, the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of others behind their backs, disgusts him. “One should not entertain rumors about others,” he tells us, “not even for the purpose of dismissing them, because to do otherwise is silently to accept the premise of the rumors, which is that people have a right to call balls and strikes about how other people lead their private lives.” Gradually, however, it becomes clear that the person X. is most concerned with protecting is X., and his altruistic theories are, at least in part, the elaborate expression of a guilty conscience.

Whatever its origins (more on which later), X.’s obsession with missteps and culpability dovetails with his job. He is a lawyer (as was O’Neill before he started writing full-time), and The Dog follows his tenure as the overseer of a wealthy Lebanese family’s globally scattered assets. The job’s core responsibility is rubber-stamping money transfers; X. spends much of his time crafting elaborate disclaimers insisting that he doesn’t understand the ramifications of the documents he signs, and that all real liability lies not with him but with his clients. After several hours spent hammering out a particularly elaborate addendum, he helpfully paraphrases it for us: “PLEASE DON’T HURT ME BECAUSE I’M SIGNING THIS.”

X. could be mistaken for the first-person narrator of a Nicholson Baker novel. He flits from here to there; makes lists; employs parenthetical asides nested within parenthetical asides; and discusses things like Sudoku, scuba diving, the nature of Internet comments and the operation of his favorite massage chair. His diction alternates between the lyrical and the legalistic, with occasional awkward forays into an older man’s idea of teen slang: “OMG. O. M. G.” “YOLO.” “LOL.” “Whatever.”

Rambling men have a long and checkered literary pedigree—one that shows no signs of dying out anytime soon. Contemporary fiction remains reliably populated with first-person novels written by males that are light on plot and heavy on associative musing, usually with some obligatory gestures of self-loathing (or at least knowing self-effacement) tossed in. Several literary hits of the last few years have been works in this vein, including Teju Cole’s Open City, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Because The Dog comes on the heels of O’Neill’s Netherland, a critical and commercial hit, it is likely to receive considerable notice; the fact that it was long-listed for the Booker Prize won’t hurt either. But the wave of attention has also been secured by another fact: the novel is set in the young metropolis of Dubai, a place Westerners love to chatter about from afar.

* * *

Dubai, or at least Dubai as imagined in the West, is an almost comically perfect setting for the follow-up to Netherland. Hans, the narrator of that earlier novel, is a Dutchman who moves from London to New York City a few years before 9/11. After his dissatisfied wife returns to England with their son, Hans starts playing cricket with other immigrants, mostly from South Asia and the Caribbean, allowing him to reflect—often rather clumsily—on questions of national identity in the postcolonial era. In Dubai, these are questions of obvious relevance. No more than 15 percent of Dubai’s residents are citizens of the United Arab Emirates. The rest have come from around the world, mostly South Asia and the Middle East, to work a job, typically in the construction or service sector. X. is there because the country’s tax laws suit his employers.

Before I opened The Dog, it was easy to imagine X.’s Dubai adventures ending up as Netherland II. Our narrator would strike up an only-in-Dubai friendship with a quirky striver from Bangladesh or Lebanon; navigating the city’s salad bowl of nationalities, the two men would learn their lessons about citizenship and friendship in the era of hyper-global capital. When I learned that O’Neill had started writing The Dog without ever having been to Dubai, and that his on-the-ground research involved just two brief trips, my expectations sank even lower. Dubai is a fascinating place, and it deserves as much as any other to have its stories told. But it has been routinely reduced by storytellers, especially Western ones, to a cheap symbol. (The same is true of Persian Gulf cities in general.) When Tom Cruise and his crew head to Dubai in the fourth installment of the Mission: Impossible series, Ghost Protocol, it’s not because the film has anything to say or show about the city. Instead, it’s because Dubai can be made to represent some bleeding edge of Now. For this crude purpose, the city has some great props: shimmering skyscrapers rising up out of the desert; dark-skinned men in white robes roaming the streets in high-end sports cars and SUVs; the global poor building architectural trophies for the global rich. Ghost Protocol might be a ridiculous example—the movie’s centerpiece unfolds on the exterior surface of the world’s tallest building—but few other Dubai stories (fiction, films and journalism alike) have done much better. An easy idea of Dubai—inevitably something about the high-speed collision of “tradition” with “modernity”—always overpowers the reality of the place, giving the story, whatever it is, a thin, plastic feel, as if set nowhere at all.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find X. bizarrely well suited to narrating a Dubai story. The vast majority of his time is spent in his apartment or at the office, so he doesn’t see enough of the city to describe it very well. His deep allergy to judgment, though, doubles as protection against the city’s tendency to bring out any observer’s “inner theorist.” Thus, while X. does occasionally slip into contemplation of, say, the symbolism of the Dubai skyline, he spends more time rejecting other people’s facile interpretations of the city, which to him amount to the sociopolitical equivalent of gossip.

X. knows all the critiques on offer: Dubai is the apex of aesthetically incoherent tastelessness, an environmental travesty and an autocrat’s playground built on hubris, bad credit and the exploitation of labor shipped in from the Global South. He doesn’t claim that these criticisms are outright false (though the details are often incorrect), but rather that it tends to be motivated by something other than an actual concern for the welfare of others. More often, people elevate themselves by tearing others down, belittling what they perceive to be the backwardness, bad taste and childish judgment of nouveau-riche Arabs. The critics, X. thinks, are “unaware, in their anxiety to piss on us from a great height, that they have forgotten to wipe the shit from their shoes.” They want to forget that their own countries were built on exploitation, too; that their home industries were trashing the environment long before anyone had heard of Dubai.

If X. is right (and I think he is), then he’s right even if his insights can be traced back to his mysterious, crippling feelings of guilt, which as the novel progresses come to seem increasingly pathological. This tension—between the accuracy of X.’s observations and the derangement of his personality—is one of The Dog’s most interesting features. Unlike so many other rambling-man novels, it doesn’t try to cajole us into admiring its self-centered narrator. The novel is prescriptive, its moral obvious: don’t inhabit the world as X. does or you’ll be as miserable as he is. But X. is the narrator; for as long as you’re reading, you’re accepting, in a way, his perspective on the world—which often seems to be reasonable, fair, correct. The novel wants to jolt us into the realization of how much X. there may be in all of us, rationalizing our torpor and inaction as the best of all possible outcomes in a complex, broken world. O’Neill seems worried, though, that we’ll miss the point and see his narrator as just another of contemporary American literature’s lovable, neurotic, hyper-articulate schlubs. In a heavy-handed moment, X. shares some of his Google searches. The list—which he presents without comment—includes both “narcissism” and “psychopathy.”

* * *

As part of his job, X. signs money transfers for his superrich employers. He, in turn, makes them sign papers swearing they’re not breaking the law. He works through his daily barrage of e-mails, perceiving each one as an “attempt to encroach on my zone of accountability.” Almost every day, he watches a plethora of pornography online, initially the kind of “amateur” stuff allegedly uploaded by real loving couples. Twice a month he pays for sex, bypassing full-time prostitutes in favor of women looking to make a little vacation money. Yet just as he can’t tell which of the money transfers he signs are part of a tax-evasion scheme, he has no way of knowing which of the porn is truly amateur or why the women he sleeps with are really doing what they’re doing. If X.’s proclivities are remotely common, there are surely markets in professionally produced “amateur” pornography, as well as full-time prostitutes who don’t describe themselves that way. But X.’s attitude seems to be: there are only so many hours in the day—how much due diligence can be expected of one man?

Pondering the fate of Dubai’s construction workers and what, if anything, he is obligated to do or think about them, X. generates a numbered proof. It includes such statements as “Mistreatment is not confined to laborers in Dubai” and “I ought not to act for the benefit of laborers in Dubai in preference to acting for the benefit of persons located elsewhere on the basis of my and the laborers’ coincidental locality in Dubai.” This sounds like the footwork of a lawyer whose deep-down preference is to do nothing. But then it turns out he’s giving a hefty 37 percent of his considerable monthly salary to human-rights nonprofits, asking one to earmark his donations for the cause of gulf migrant workers’ rights.

Proximity matters. Like it or not, irrational as it might seem, what we end up doing or not doing, caring about or ignoring, is influenced by what X. refers to as our “coincidental locality.” This drives him crazy: to care more about something simply because it’s close by seems to him logically indefensible. More significantly, the force of proximity threatens his attempts to wall himself off from the world. When you consider all of the problems of the planet at once, of course nothing seems to matter enough to impel individual action. But if one can be moved by something that occurs nearby, then we are vulnerable. Being moved is just a step away from being moved to act, which is the first step to acting in error. “A fact is where it all starts to go wrong,” X. says. “A fact is a knock on the door.”

The Dog is a valuable contribution to the still-growing pantheon of Dubai stories, because X. is able to remember that the emirate is not an idea but a place—one no more inherently meaningful or symbolic than any other. Dubai, in turn, is the perfect foil for X.’s obsession with his own potential collusion in man’s institutionalized inhumanity to man. It’s not that Dubai is any more exploitative than anywhere else; exploitation just looks different there than it does in, say, New York. The city is young: its hustlers have not yet sensed the need to cover their tracks, and the standard defense mechanisms that help foreign observers excuse themselves from caring don’t always work. If you live in a Dubai luxury high-rise, you might, like X., see a despairing construction worker leap to his death from a half-built skyscraper. Of course, X. doesn’t want to admit what he saw. “It could have been anything,” he insists to himself. “It could have been a bird; it could have been something inanimate. That cannot be ruled out. Nor can it be ruled out that it was nothing. Nothing can be ruled out.” (Note how the last sentence contains two contradictory readings.) He wants it to have been nothing—and wants even more not to have to know whether it was nothing or something. Haven’t his donations bought him that right?

* * *

As it turns out, X.’s bosses are crooked and his job is a setup. O’Neill wants us to see this coming almost from the start, and well before X. does. Certainly, any readers of O’Neill’s previous work will be on the alert for exactly this possibility. In his first novel, This Is the Life, a lawyer takes a year to realize that he is a pawn in his client’s machinations; in Netherland, Hans (the lonely narrator) spends much of the novel with a charismatic, cricket-loving Trinidadian who turns out to be making him an accomplice to a criminal enterprise. When, in The Dog, the hammer starts to descend on X., he makes no effort to move out of its path; instead, he situates himself exactly at its point of impact. At last he experiences some peace, some harmony between how he feels and what’s about to happen, between what he suspects he deserves and what he’s going to get. The specter of imprisonment looms, but instead of scaring X., it calms him down. In prison, you “can hardly be punished more”—which suits him just fine.

But why does X. feel so guilty? Why can’t he act? As it becomes clearer that X.’s situation won’t improve, these questions take on more weight, and the fundamental narrowness of O’Neill’s vision becomes more apparent. If X. is doomed, what doomed him? One possibility is that his doom was fated or destined. But O’Neill attempts a more specific explanation, one grounded in X.’s past. The most important aspect of his pre-Dubai life—and the subject of recurring flashbacks—was X.’s long-term romantic relationship with a fellow lawyer named Jenn. He found himself drawn to her because her family troubles made Jenn seem like someone he could save. But after several years, X. realized that he didn’t love her. Worse: “our quasi-marriage was a living death for me.” When he finally called it off by refusing to have children, Jenn flew into a rage and emptied their joint bank account. Someone—potentially Jenn, but perhaps not—also took steps to ruin X.’s good name in New York. Dubai was a clean slate.

Once there, X. vows to never again risk error with someone else, despite his belief that romantic commitment is the only source of salvation in a cruel world, a belief that his meandering narration returns to again and again. “To care and be cared for…is surely the great purpose and the basic meaning of growing up.” “What I’ve wanted, most of all, is someone nice and safe to hang out with.” Intimacy is “the underexplored source of hope of any lasting sort.” But because the novel never turns to a substantial instance of someone deciding to care in a committed way about anything or anyone, X.’s hopeful musings on love’s potential sound a little too much like literary Hallmark cards.

Is O’Neill deflating clichéd exultations of love’s power? It’s unlikely, especially in light of Netherland’s treatment of the same subject. Hans falls into a vacuum much like X.’s; the time spent alone in the company of his own thoughts is “intolerable.” All ends on a happy note, though: Hans moves to London in the hope of winning his wife back, and eventually she agrees, because “she felt a responsibility to see [Hans] through life, and the responsibility felt like a happy one.” Once they’re back together, the world gets pleasant again. There’s nothing wrong with that. But in the world of Netherland and The Dog, there is just one road to redemption in our infinitely broken world, and it is family love. Apparently, it’s a coin toss: either you come to adulthood equipped for that variety of intimacy, or you don’t. In Netherland, Hans is; in The Dog, X. isn’t. One man gets to be happy, the other is left alone with his guilt. That’s that.

The Jenn backstory, while at first appearing to offer a personal psychological explanation for what happens to X., in the end reinforces the power of destiny. And when everything in a novel appears to hinge on a quirk of fate, the danger is that the rest—whether cricket on Staten Island, the view from a Dubai skyscraper, or even the specifics of romantic relationships, doomed or otherwise—is reduced to so much window dressing. I don’t deny that for many people, especially reasonably affluent people of the sort O’Neill likes to write about, most of the world outside the home does function as window dressing: interesting places in the news specials that one might watch (perhaps with one’s spouse, perhaps alone), or talk about over drinks, or read about in the topical literary release of the season. But a writer as talented as O’Neill could do better than simply describe that reality: he could come up with a character who doesn’t just hear facts banging on the door, but also at some point decides to answer, not knowing what will happen.

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