I had high expectations for The Dogs of Babel, the first novel of Carolyn Parkhurst — and they were met, generally speaking. That is, it was a good enough novel, compelling [though for not the reasons I’d foreseen], with engaging characters [again, not for the reasons I’d foreseen]. Not to mention an intriguing premise: Paul Iverson’s young wife, Lexy Ransome, has died — she fell from a tree — and only their dog Lorelei, the only witness, holds answers to many mysteries. Or “incongruities,” as Paul himself points out. Why was Lexy up on that tree? Was this a suicide, or an accident? What led to Lexy’s death? And so, hungry for answers, linguist Paul Iverson turns to Lorelei, hoping he can teach her how to speak. To maybe say, This is what happened to Lexy.
Told in flashbacks of what life was like with Lorelei and what progress he makes with Lorelei’s speech, The Dogs of Babel must sound like your weepy beach read: Oh, another tale about love and loss and insanity-hinting grief. And I suppose it’s all that too. It could be that: A searingly honest novel about what happens to us when all is left of us is our grief. It could be that.
Add to the mix several disquieting — even disturbing, some downright disgusting — scenes: A man who operates on dogs to get them to talk, the inhumanity people have done to their dogs, a sadism I read with much horror; Lexy makes masks, and later we find her making masks for dead people — much later we find her donning a mask and making love to Paul, a scene that had me throwing the book under my bed for a few hours before retrieving it to read again, to get the damned thing over and done with.
This novel made me ill. I know I have a good stomach. I just recently read the psychological sliminess of two awesome works of literature, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin [still need to gather my wits before I talk about that one], and What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. It’s not the graphic, concrete scenes [the novella in David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide includes one horrifically violent scene] — I have a good stomach for these kinds of things. But the difference between Parkhurst’s novel and all the others I’ve read?
I don’t know. Augh. It’s not the animal cruelty, not the creepiness of some of the scenes, not the outpouring of grief. I told you: I don’t scare that easily. So, I’m using the Ineffably Smarmy card with this book: The Dogs of Babel was ineffably smarmy. It does not leave you with good feelings afterwards. And I don’t even mean that as a compliment, there is no irony in here. I think about having read of The Dogs of Babel, and I feel dirty.
I could dwell on masks, the facades and walls people put up. I could dwell on Paul’s insistence that he could make Lorelei speak, that it’s reflective on his inability to speak himself, yadda yadda. I could dwell on what I think are the technical failings of the form — The too-obvious complexifying [no, that’s not a word] of the plot by flashback-present-reflection. I could dwell on how Paul appears as a character [Okay enough, I guess], how Lexy appears as a character [Starts off okay, mid-point augh, okay-er by the end].
I could even dwell on how false too many aspects of this novel seems to me: The arbitrariness of having Paul as a linguist, the What now? mask-making of Lexy, the randomness of this thing called the Cerberus Society.
Then again, I could dwell on the three most earnest pages of the novel: When Paul finally allows himself to address Lexy’s death directly, where the form adapts to the content — What’s it like, Lexy? You wake up and you feel — what? Heaviness, an ache inside, a weight, yes. A soft crumpling of flesh. A feeling like all the surfaces inside you have been rubbed raw. A voice in your head — no, not voices, not like hearing voices, nothing that crazy, just your own inner voice, the one that says “Turn left at the corner” or “Don’t forget to stop at the post office,” only now it’s saying “I hate myself.” It’s saying “I want to die.” And it goes spanning three, no, four pages. Four pages of refreshingly honest writing — prose that comes clean after chapters upon chapters of smarmy fakeness, of making me ill, of making me feel dirty.
And maybe I can dwell on how this book has drawn such a violent reaction from me? Maybe I can point one to what I feel like is the author’s intentions, which she presents us, by way of a new narrator [of her new book]? But, again, it doesn’t quite ring true. It doesn’t feel all sincere. [Here I go again, refusing to let the work speak for itself.] Then again, I am now very much willing to read that new book, The Nobodies Album, just to see how the narrator stands against my high Smarm Tolerance. Also, also: Does Parkhurst want a Lionel Shriver and Zoe Heller route for herself, the unlikeable-characters-you-judge-for-yourself shtick?
Want a challenge? Give me Parkhurst’s two other novels. Dare me to not like them. Or like them. Whichever.
Where was I? Was this a good review? Did I like the novel? What? Who are you? Where am I? Are those Cheetos?