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The Dog takes the form of an interior monologue on the part of our narrator, a successful corporate secretary type in Dubai. Like all interior monologues (think James Kelman, for example), one’s enjoyment of it will depend on whether or not you “get” the narrator. In this case, the narrator is not a nice man. A New York attorney of Swiss heritage, he has found himself running the sizeable fortune of the Batros family – an elderly Beiruti businessman and his two shady sons. Our narrator, who goes to some lengths to conceal his name (which is probably Xavier), takes a fairly hands-off approach to the work, batting away bothersome e-mails and simply signing documents provided by the Batros brothers, apparently without even bothering to read them. This allows our narrator to spend his time more usefully engaged in diving, running, wa*king and looking out of his impressive apartment window. He has a flunkey, Ali, to take care of any actual work that might pop up; when it doesn’t, Ali is a useful substitute for a real friend. Our narrator affects nonchalance and modesty. He feigns compassion. Yet, when push comes to shove, everything is somebody else’s problem. He gazes intently at the inequalities in Dubai, shrugs his shoulders and sighs. Perhaps he gives a few dollars to a couple of NGOs to help alleviate the plight of the poor, but these donations are almost certainly less generous and more expedient than he makes out. For real charity, he believes his payment of Russian call girls represents a fair trickle down of wealth. Our narrator has a past. He, like so many expats in Dubai, is escaping from a failed relationship which, despite his rationalisation, does not make him look good. But the present to which he has escaped is portrayed as shallow and worthless. There are material comforts, but there is envy of those who seem to have so much more. Despite being American, our narrator is still hired help. When he is obliged to offer an internship to Sandro Batros’s obese son, it becomes clear who calls the shots. The narrative style is self-consciously legalistic. Long words are used, sometimes misused, when shorter ones would have done. There are brackets within brackets within brackets. The story wanders and rambles from one thread to another – which is useful in obscuring the fact that not much actually happens. There are loose ends all over the place; there are matters of intrigue that would not have had a second glance had our narrator and his colleagues not all been quite so bored. There are word-plays, hypothetical e-mails, barbed sarcasm. Most of all, there is self-promotion. Our narrator strives to assure us of his decency, intellect, good taste whilst bragging constantly of his close connections to serious players. It looks grotesque and Joseph O’Neill wants it to look grotesque. Dubai itself is depicted in great detail – obviously through the jaundiced view of a man who is no longer in love with it, but nevertheless in a convincing way. The fragility of the model: palaces in the desert, artificial lagoons, multi-million dollar jobs, sports cars – all could be taken away at the click of someone’s fingers. Joseph O’Neill clearly presents the differentiated levels of privilege on offer, depending on your passport or ethnicity. This is compared and contrasted with the relatively recency of a modest history. There is a sense that, for expats, ambitions based on wealth and status only have meaning back home; in a foreign country the rules are different; status has no reference point and everything becomes ephemeral – living for the moment. Sometimes it is said that the greatest gift is to see ourselves as others see us. Joseph O’Neill used the concept of the Anglo-Dutch outsider to give a quirky, offbeat view of New York in Netherland. Here, he uses the New Yorker to give an offbeat view of Dubai. Alas, Dubai is perhaps not quite substantial enough to warrant such a dissection; the quirkiness of Netherland and its plans for a cricket league are just not quite recreated in The Dog. It’s still a good novel, but it’s not Netherland. ****0
This is a difficult novel to review. The novel is a stream of consciousness, rambling monologue on the part of Dutch businessman Hans van den Broek. The two returning themes in this monologue seem to be the shaky marriage to his wife Rachel, and his relationship with the mysterious Chuck Ramkissoon, a charismatic West Indian trying to introduce cricket to New York. The cover makes all sorts of comparisons with great novels - The Great Gatsby, perhaps, or early Saul Bellow. It reminded me most closely of Salman Rushdie's Fury. Whilst much of the novel is set in New York, it is written very much from an outsider's perspective. Hans is not ambitious; is not career focussed, although he does seem to be very successful. This is not Carpe Diem. And at the same time, we don't see idle money waiting to make more money - there is a Dutch work ethic at play. Hans is drawn to Chuck not through being seduced by money, but rather a curiosity to see what the larger than life Ramkissoon is really up to. And as we see more of Chuck, we learn that he is dead and that he was a bit of a wide boy - a chancer with grand plans that were made before the ink had dried on the previous plans. Netherland does create a real intrigue through the Chuck character that offers time and space to explore the world of West Indian and South Asian immigrants to New York - and their struggles to play cricket in a land of baseball. Hans is never fully part of this set, and this is borne out by his unwillingness to change his cricket game to suit local conditions. Rachel, the wife, though, is a bore. For reasons that remain obscure, she has decided not to live in New York, apparently in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. Her reasons are probably more complex, but don't feel fully explored. Rachel seems to serve largely as a vehicle for introducing cameo characters such as Martin the chef and the Irish priest. There are other cameo characters too - the angel who lives in the Hotel Chelsea and Abelsky, for example. These characters don't seem terribly central to any storyline; they don't seem to do much other than inhabit a specific situation at a specific time, but they are quite amusing. In fact, the storyline itself could be seen just as a vehicle for various remeniscences and chance encounters. If there is a criticism, it is that the language is sometimes too dense; too overblown. That can feel self conscious and can make the book drag. Interior monologues are tricky - the writer has to retain the reader's interest - and there are parts of Netherland where the language is a barrier to doing so. And the quote on the front cover, promising a post 9/11 masterpiece, drives up expectations of a work of major political import when in fact 9/11 is really rather incidental to the whole piece. Overall, Netherland does have a familiar feel to it - the style is not new, but the content in focusing on the immigrant communities it does a convincing job of offering some insight into modern day New York. But for a short novel, it does drag a bit in parts. It's a toss up between three or four stars, but the longer I think about it, the closer it gets to four.