Wednesday, April 08, 2009

"Call it a field..."

I've finished Dogs of Babel. While I write, I'm making a version of a recipe I saw in the newspaper today, a kind of breakfast-for-dinner meal, poached eggs atop peas. The peas should be sprinkled with bacon, but I don't have any in the house, so mine will be plainer: I have some cornbread, I'm thinking about sprinkling it with Parmesan cheese. I'm sure it's not supposed to be a full meal either, but eggs, peas, and cornbread sound fine to me.
Parkhurst's novel is written in stunningly beautiful prose, the tale of a man, told by that man, the husband of a woman who is found dead at the foot of an apple tree in their backyard, their Rhodesian Ridgeback nosing the body and yelping out the cries to neighbors, one of whom finally looks over the fence. In the UK, the book was more precisely titled Lorelei's Secret, since the dog, Lorelei, was the only witness to what happened. The words "elegiac" and "parable" have been frequently applied to this novel, and when it sustains that tone, which is most of the time, the novel shines, the prose is a glimmering field of love and grief, the ineffable and the unknowable. "Babel" is a reference to the husband's profession as a linguist, and his growing obsession, which he pursues in the name of research, of teaching the dog to talk, or at least to communicate, because he is convinced that Lorelie can make sense of what happened: why was his wife, Lexy (there are elements of allegory here), climbing a thirty foot tree in the first place ? Police forensics determine quickly that Lexy did not jump, but, Paul wonders, did she "let herself" fall ? [Fall. From an apple tree. Reference to Babel. Are these allusions clear enough ? Apparently the apple tree and the fall were not enough for the publishers who changed the title: the story of Babel is not mentioned in the book.] The novel retells the story of how Paul and Lexy, who owned Lorelei before she met Paul, met and married. Lexy is a mask maker, an artistry that takes a macabre turn when she is commissioned to make a modern day death mask of a teenage girl who has died of cancer. Contrary to what Paul expects, the mask, while limning the girl's features, is full of life: "She had painted the face white, a stark white background, with a field of bright flowers that stretched from cheek to cheek. The colors were vibrant --- no soft pastels, no pinks and baby blues. There were stems and leaves in bright, vivid greens, topped with blossoms of read and purple and yellow and teal, their petals touched with gold like a glint of sunglow. There were not the kind of flowers that would have been sent to the girl's funeral... These were wildflowers, windblown and growing every which way." It is one of several crucial moments in the novel where Paul is taken by surprise by Lexy's work, both by its nature and execution, and his inability to fully comprehend the artist in her and the mercurial emotions that reside behind her own mask of everyday self burn away, like a purifying flame, the glinting, sunlit elegy of his narrative of their romance. But there is no purifying flame: as do many in grief, Paul eats out of cereal boxes, lets the laundry and dirty dishes pile up, and pursues his project with Lorelei. In this world, which is like our own but is not, there is a "famous case" of a French talking dog from the sixteenth century, followed by another famous case, in Paul's own time, of a criminal who altered the anatomy of dogs until he succeeded, we're told, in getting it to talk. It is a criminal case, with the mad doctor now jailed, the dog having testified in his own words. When Paul finally does encounter the dog, we will find that it is not clear at all that the dog can talk, putting the idea that "everybody heard it" back into proper context. As his sane department chair and colleague remarks, "whole courtrooms in Salem were convinced they'd seen witchcraft performed." It is this off the cuff remark that leads to the oddest and least successful aspect of the book, a shame, I think, because the author uses it to create a very plotted climax that feels out of place. (For those of you as sensitive as I, nothing that horrendous happens to Lorelei.) Paul meets up with the followers of the criminal who altered jaw after jaw of dogs, cruelly, to create his talking marvel. Paul has contacted the man in prison, and is properly horrified by the sketches the man sends him, yet goes, when invited, to what might be termed a hell's den of hobbyists, all of whom are pursuing the same gruesome practices, and who have kidnapped the famous talking dog, Dog J[ob ? he started with "a" we're told, and had worked his way through eight other dogs, "A" through "I", hacking and sawing in his apartment until he "succeeded"]. It is in this underground den of the Cerberus Society that Paul realizes his friend may be right. To add angst and horror to the tale, it turns out that Lorelei, who had turned up at Lexy's door as a puppy, bleeding from the neck, had escaped from this society's kennels, and after a predictable police raid, Paul returns home to find Lorelei gone. So the reader must wait as the plot moves toward Paul's discovery of the truth, incomplete, until Lorelei is found, not outwardly maimed, but with her voice box removed ---an unnecessary bit of horror and overdetermined symbolism--- a truth it will not require Lorelei's "voice" to solve, merely and instead, Paul's simple recognition of the nature of a loyal animal. The weakness is not that the book shifts its mythologies from biblical to Greco-Roman (that trick has been easily managed in many a book), but that this section's desire to drive home the monstrousness of the project, the crime against nature, if you will, of physically altering the dogs, does not really reflect anything in Paul's yearning or his methods (he imitates sounds, tried to get Lorelei to nose at picture cards, has a symbolic computer keyboard built), and except for the fact that every epic journey requires the hero to descend to the underworld (and Parkhurst has this in mind. Paul narrates toward the beginning: If I could, I would begin the way poets used to do.... I sing of a woman with ink on her hands and pictures hidden beneath her hair. I sing of a dog with a skin like velvet pushed the wrong way."), these moments in the basement and the authorial decision to maim Lorelei, feel contrived, are contrived, as is the odd scene where Lexy climbs atop Paul in bed wearing the one death mask that parents of a deceased child had rejected: a cherubically happy face painted atop the outlines of her actual features in death. You want to hold up a hand and say, we know, we know. No need to harm the dog, to set the mask scene in New Orleans: the grotesque and its surreal quality don't heel well [thought about it: sorry, "heel" is the right word here] to elegy and the clean lines of parable, it doesn't make it more complex; it pulls the plot too far in an unnecessary direction. It is part of a parallel in the narrative where both Paul and Lexy (Paul after Lexy's death) have engaged in different kinds of magical thinking, a thinking of which each is disabused by the intrusion of reality (if Paul's trip to Hell can be termed that), but taking the knife to Lorelei's throat [the surgery is not described, O Dog Lovers], only grinds away at an awareness that has already permeated the whole text, and by this point in the narrative, Paul's conscious and intellectual self as well. I wondered, half aloud while reading, if Parkhurst had become nervous about momentum, and hence, a last minute, toward-the-end-of-novel dognapping. The novel recovers well enough at the end: we see that we, along with Paul, were staring right at some clues we could have deciphered, and the one remaining mystery to Paul (why Lexy fed Lorelei a whole steak on the day she fell) is, I'd guess, already clear to the reader. The story of how we never really know each other, innocent before the Edenic Fall (when, a philosopher named Vasil ---who exists only in the novel--- supposed animals lost their ability to speak), and how we do, self consciously, carnally, and imperfectly after, how the climb up the apple tree mirrors the attempt to restore that perfection by building a tower to heaven, is all beautifully and subtly drawn. The dogs of Babel, to follow out the metaphor, are at as much of a loss as their tower-building masters. It is only when Paul is able to think like a dog, outside of speech, that he is able to solve the final piece of the puzzle by understanding ---and experiencing--- the instincts of Lorelei. It is a beautifully and originally imagined piece of work, one I hope no one passes up because of its flaws. Billy Collins once wrote these lines to describe poetry:
Call it a field where the animals
who were forgotten by the ark
come to graze under the evening clouds.
In the end, the novel is Lorelei's field, her space under the apple tree; she, forgotten by the human arks that were supposed to keep her safe while they, if only for a moment, but with irrevocable consequences, pursued their own rescues. Lorelei, the silent dog in the evening of her life, who, as instinct would allow and demand, ate a tempting morsel, oblivious to the loss that would follow, but finally, in the end, by sheer force of life and that same instinct, by being only a dog, and not Eve, keeps her master from falling too, and returns him to himself, to her, once again on solid ground.

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