Once upon a time—well, in 2007—a young hero—that is to say, a Swiss-American corporate attorney—traveled to a faraway land—okay, Dubai—to seek his fortune.
Such is the silhouette of The Dog, the latest novel from Joseph O’Neill, best known as the author of Netherland. Here, in a satire of expatriate life in a Middle Eastern boomtown, he turns his attention to another netherland altogether: the “abracadabrapolis” of Dubai. Eager to escape the post-breakup malaise and digital-age ennui he associates with his life in Manhattan, the novel’s protagonist enters the employ of the powerful Batros family in the ambiguous role of their “homme de confiance.” In that capacity, the narrator—known to us only as X.—enjoys a “limitless trust” at once legal, financial, and quasi-familial. Despite its grandiose title, however, X.’s position leaves him ample time for aimless Googling, musings on the desert metropolis in which he lives, and, as the novel progresses, an increasing obsession with the disappearance of one of his émigré acquaintances.
Netherland, which garnered the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the enthusiasm of such cultural arbiters as James Wood and Barack Obama, played a shrewd game of William Tell with generic clichés. It was a 9/11 novel about cricket, a Gatsby riff with a Dutchman at its center, a New York ode whose most evocative scenes pitched camp on Staten Island. The Dog, whose relative jauntiness represents a significant departure from O’Neill’s previous novel, gambles no less freely with the readerly credit Netherland established.
At its best, the comic novel is a buoyant craft held aloft by levity and steadied by a ballast of social critique. The Dog attests to O’Neill’s essential grasp of this tonal physics even as it betrays a shakier hand on the instrument panel. Declaring himself “sick of only-in-Dubai stories,” the narrator sets out to combine farce’s effervescence with the heft of a morality tale, to produce something akin to the “monologue, amusing and ethnological in tone,” with which his ex, Jenn, initially captivated him.
How does The Dog imagine itself? As a prose cousin of Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation, whose hangdog male protagonist quips wryly about Japanese culture yet succumbs to the dream logic of insomniac Tokyo? Or as an Emirates edition of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, whose razor-sharp parodies of emails and memoranda pillory a privileged and politically correct clique of Seattleite soccer moms?
At its best, the comic novel is a buoyant craft held aloft by levity and steadied by a ballast of social critique.
Either incarnation would have improved on the novel in hand, which, despite nods to the travelogue, the whodunit, and the picaresque tale, owes a significant formal debt to the watercooler rant. The narrator, to judge from his dominant storytelling mode, inhabits a Dilbert-like universe where bosses are irrational, interns are incompetent, and “work” consists of transforming one’s inbox into a digital cul-de-sac where requests meet a dead end. Against this middle-class paradigm, however, operates the older logic of patronage, which holds that artists occupy a cramped middle ground between finicky aristocrats and inept servants—but, as the song goes, you gotta serve somebody.
The interaction between these two professional models, the white-collar office and the landed estate, generates the freshest comedy in The Dog—as when X., asked to teach a young member of the Batros family “some values,” assigns the adolescent a regimen of Wikipedia research and Sudoku puzzles. Likewise, the novel’s dullest stretches—and greatest blunders—result from pat renderings of the work-shy workplace and the almost feudal commitment X.’s employers demand.
O’Neill has not lost his eye for the surreal and serendipitous encounters that attend existential upheaval. Chuck Ramkissoon, the Trinidadian grifter who befriends Netherland’s narrator, remains the most vivid of these. It’s telling, though, that in The Dog so many such connections stem from service-based or transactional relationships recast as friendships—with Mila, the Belarusian prostitute who “very rarely personally fucks me these days”; with Ollie, a podiatric savant who pumices X.’s feet, albeit free of charge; with “my Ali,” the stateless gofer to whom no task is too small (or too large) to delegate.
The narrator, obsessed by the contract that binds him to the Batros clan and keen to translate his other relationships into legalese, comes to regard the drafting of blanket disclaimers as a professional and interpersonal panacea. Rare is the individual who does not threaten “to make me act in loco parentis or in loco amicus or otherwise wear some unwarranted caretaking hat.” X. claims to be preoccupied by moral questions but delights in the kind of ethical penny-pinching that calculates his precise responsibility to the nearest percentage point.
Are we to coo over our protagonist’s progress toward digital-age enlightenment or to sneer at the vestiges of cultural chauvinism he retains?
This central hypocrisy could have been the fodder for a Dickensian legalistic romp. To be sure, the resonant double meanings of capitalist keywords like “trust” and “interest” are alive to O’Neill; the novel’s ironic boundaries, however, ultimately prove as hazy and illusive as its rendering of Dubai. The Dog asks X. to serve as the mouthpiece for both pompousness and profundity, and its reluctance to commit to a register renders its sincerities as suspect as its humor. Are we to coo over our protagonist’s progress toward digital-age enlightenment or to sneer at the vestiges of cultural chauvinism he retains? X. himself cringes at the realization that he has begun to regard the cleaning staff of his apartment with “the repugnance one feels on coming upon vermin,” that “I did not want to distinguish between one brown face and another.” What to make, though, of his willingness to classify his employee, Ali, as “the opposite of a Bartleby—a Jeeves”? Such a moment asks us to snicker in response to the efficiency of the generalization and at the servants whose laxity or obsequiousness it purports to describe. In a novel as keenly aware of the language of business as The Dog, it serves us to ask, even if we laugh, at whose expense these jokes operate.
Like Edward St. Aubyn’s recent novel Lost for Words, a satire of literary prizegiving that verges unflatteringly on a roman à clef, The Dog suffers from problems of investment. Astringency and authorial ruthlessness, which St. Aubyn possesses in spades, allow him to conjure or jettison disposable minor characters with a single barbed incantation. The same cannot be said of O’Neill, who falls back on the matchmaking tics by which lyrical, self-consciously “literary” novels endear protagonist to reader. A series of linked diving scenes, during which X. comes to regard the aquatic environment as “nearly a pure substitute for the world from which one enters it,” place us so squarely in this lyrical mode that, when we surface, we may regard the novel’s broader ironies with some perplexity. It’s hardly surprising that X. anticipates chuckles at his employers’ lapses but congratulations for his own moments of generosity and self-awareness; whether O’Neill desires the same approval for his narrator is harder to say.
Zadie Smith diagnosed Netherland as “an anxious novel, unusually so,” a book that “wants you to know that it knows you know it knows.”1 The Dog runs the risk of engendering a parallel anxiety in its reader. To point out that its protagonist replicates the Batros brothers’ blind spots with respect to “waiters, lackeys, and help” is, after all, only to acknowledge that he operates within a hierarchy that conflates and confuses employment, service, and philanthropy. We hope that the novel knows this—but do we know it knows?