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.
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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.