Book Reviews: In the city of futility and luxury
The Dog, Joseph O'Neill, Fourth Estate, €24.50
GREED is much more than the need to have more than others. Its effects can damage and often destroy one’s humanity, leaving one with no sense of decency let alone dignity.
A wretched old man being hosed down by one of his young deckhand’s is as testimonious as any image to greed’s decaying effects.The Dog is Joseph O’Neill’s follow-up to his highly-acclaimed Neverland. It’s the story of a world where the decent fall and the indecent rise narrated by an anti-hero who when confronted with such injustice struggles not to do the right thing. It’s satirical, often surreal, although you suspect that there’s significant blurring between the lines of O’Neill’s world and the real one.
The narrator a New York lawyer known only to us as X is neurotic, has few friends, finds relationships difficult, and feels not only alienated but contemptuous of a world now “in the hands of an irresistible horde of anarchists.”
After an acrimonious end to his only meaningful relationship X feels New York pressing down on him. Rather than push back he runs away. He always does, he’s a coward, yet he uses powers of reason, often to absurd affect, to convince himself that being supine and spineless is best.
He runs to Dubai to work for the Batros, a family of great wealth but low worth. He’s left to take care of Sandro, the feckless middle-aged son of the aforementioned old man. Sandro in turn leaves it to X to take care of his equally feckless teenage son. Dubai is a cycle of acquittance, and X acquits himself too by drawing up indecipherable disclaimers.
Dubai is a city of affectation: buildings are named ‘The Situation’, ‘The Aspiration’, and ‘The Unique’ (even though there are several), and attractive young couples are paid to cruise around in Lamborghinis, stepping out to affect the appearance of glamour.
It appears a paradise, but it’s a mirage — ‘a fata morgana’ — where those who work hardest (South-Asian labourers and servants) have nothing and those who work least (The Emiratis) have everything. It’s a prison, one where morality is a byword in futility, albeit a prison with Ferraris, boozy brunches, massage chairs and high-class Eurasian prostitutes.
The savage, yet sometimes subtle, satire of O’Neill’s novel is similar to Martin Amis’s Money, although O’Neill’s X is a more passive spectator, who invites sympathy. X is a man of good intent but bad action yet what he experiences in Dubai is so bad that even he may have to act on his intent.
The Dog is both laughably absurd and achingly real, reminding us that we are, even in the futuristic gleam of Dubai, primitive and brutal. O’Neill writes with great clarity and concision, and yet at times he’s convoluted, but by design. The precedents, clauses and disclaimers that X writes for himself and the Batros twist back and forth, leaving you lost in a labyrinth of legal terms, and yet O’Neill shows you by doing so that inaction and indecency, like so much that’s immoral, is often based in the banal, and in little more than a convoluted choice of words.