— I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.
— I’ll wager a year’s servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.
And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old ‘dog’ ways, and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.
André Alexis’s contemporary take on the apologue offers an utterly compelling and affecting look at the beauty and perils of human consciousness. By turns meditative and devastating, charming and strange, Fifteen Dogs shows you can teach an old genre new tricks.
The 2015 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize jury citation:
‘In Fifteen Dogs – André Alexis’ powerful apologue – questions of knowledge and happiness, fidelity and fate are grounded in the real-world adventures of a group of dogs. Here is a beautifully written allegory for our times: one in which man’s best friend shows us the benefits of higher consciousness – the favoured bone of fact buried where we might all find it. Fifteen Dogs is an original and vital work written by a master craftsman: philosophy given a perfect form.’
The 2015 Giller jury citation:
‘What does it mean to be alive? To think, to feel, to love and to envy? André Alexis explores all of this and more in the extraordinary Fifteen Dogs, an insightful and philosophical meditation on the nature of consciousness. It’s a novel filled with balancing acts: humour juxtaposed with savagery, solitude with the desperate need to be part of a pack, perceptive prose interspersed with playful poetry. A wonderful and original piece of writing that challenges the reader to examine their own existence and recall the age old question, what’s the meaning of life?’
When is a dog not a dog? Two Greek gods bet on what would happen to 15 unsuspecting canines if they were granted human intelligence. Alexis (Pastoral, 2014, etc.) devises an inventive romp through the nature of humanity in this beautiful, entertaining read. Apollo and Hermes debate what, if anything, sets humans apart from other mortal beings—a question that is more frequently part of today’s conversations among scientists about consciousness. Settling on intelligence, they enable a random group of mutts, poodles, retrievers, and other breeds to develop their own language, comprehend human language, and understand the passing of time. But the book’s central quest is to explore the possibility for happiness—and whether intelligence hinders or helps this. In their new state of awareness, the dogs escape from a veterinary clinic and form a pack in a city park. Armed with human capabilities, they jockey for power and quarrel over how these gifts should be used. The group’s leader, a mastiff named Atticus, fears change, thinking “a pack needed unity, and unity meant that all understood the world in the same way or, if not the world, the rules, at least.” The pack’s poet, who entrances some and disturbs others with his original musings in their new language, is marked for elimination by Atticus, who bans the language as unnatural for dogs. Readers spend most of their time with Majnoun, a poodle who develops a symbiotic relationship with a woman who takes him in, as he encounters other survivors from his pack. To him, “the line between natural (the things Majnoun couldn’t help doing) and cultural (the things he could) was neither clear nor fixed.” A clever exploration of our essence, communication, and how our societies are organized.
“One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes” decide that the only way to determine whether human intelligence contributes to happiness is to grant it to 15 dogs and see whether they die happy. This audacious beginning of the latest novel from Alexis (Childhood, winner of the Books in Canada First Novel and Trillium Book Awards) places the book firmly in the ancient tradition of stories about the immortal gods placing wagers on mortal activity. The gods’ interference allows Alexis to neatly sidestep potential criticism that he has anthropomorphized, sometimes leveled at works that try to imagine the inner lives of animals, while he ruminates on aspects of human society including political structure, the nature of dominance, the role of the weak, religion, authenticity and performativity, love, and art. Clearly familiar with canine behavior, Alexis manages to encapsulate an astonishing range of metaphysical questions in a simple tale about dogs that came to know too much. The result is a delightful juxtaposition of the human and canine conditions, and a narrative that, like just one of the dogs, delights in the twists and turns of the gods’ linguistic gift. (Apr.)