Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
I know this is going to happen, of course. Even people close to me are going to recommend that I read every dog book in the universe. It's to be expected, and honestly, I don't mind. After all, if they don't recommend one, I might miss it.
Please know, however, that if you recommend a dog book, or buy me one as a gift, or hand me any other book on any subject at any time, there's a high possibility of my not reading it. I can't read everything, and so, at times, I read nothing. Or next to nothing. I read book descriptions on Amazon.com. Maybe that if I'm lucky.
But I might just read it, too.
I got Dogs of Babel as a birthday gift. I wasn't sure I was interested, but there was that gorgeous dog on the cover. And I had three or four other books to read at the time. You might say I read it because otherwise I would have to read something else. So, good. I'm one for, let's say, twenty.
Dogs of Babel is one of those breeds of novel that rests its ambition upon an idea, upon what appears to be a flash of insight, a stroke of genius, a single illuminating concept. I tend to think of these as "pitch" books, because the "IDEA" or "CONCEPT" or "PITCH" is easy to spot, is easy to transmit from author to agent to editor, or from author to agent to movie producer. (And here you go.) The pitch novel, done correctly, is destined for the movies (done not so well, it's destined for the remainder pile, but this may be a discussion for another time). And Dogs of Babel is no exception--it's a pitch novel done well. Here's my pitch if I'm Carolyn Parkhurst's agent (which I'm not, in case you were wondering): "Mourning husband attempts to unravel the truth regarding his wife's death by teaching the only witness--his dog--to speak."
Sounds intriguing, yes? Well, maybe?
The trouble is, a decent novel is extremely difficult to reduce to a pitch, and authors who are encouraged to do so (as they often are) tend to oversimplify their work. They may create average or even above-average entertainment, but if they attempt to stretch beyond that, they may run in to trouble.
There are a few aspects of Dogs of Babel that do just that. The darker aspects of dog-speech explored in the novel are done so in a manner that seems entirely outside the novel's scope. A sinister gang of dog mutilationists? Well, maybe. But it comes as too much of a surprise--or too much of a distraction. It removes us from the otherwise-central lovestory, and turns the storyline on itself as if eating its own tail.
Because therein is the novel's strength. In its lovestory. The lovestory is simple, yes, but beautiful in its simplicity. The lovestory does not attempt to change or move us into places we haven't been before, but this is precicely why we long for it. The lovestory is central to the human being. We want it. We want it simple. And we want to feel it again and again, even if it ends poorly. See Romeo and Juliet. Will we ever tire of those two? Is there any story less complex yet more moving?
I doubt it.
Meanwhile, I don't mean to be too critical of Dogs of Babel. I enjoyed it, to a point. It will likely make a good movie. And thus seems the contemporary landing place of the pitch novel. In the right hands, the movie can exceed the power and scope and meening of the novel. Bridges of Madison County, for instance, was a sugary, non-essential, throwaway novel that becomes a fully-realized, moving, simple love story as a film.
Maybe when they make the movie of Dogs of Babel, they an get Clint Eastwood to direct. Then again, maybe I better go finish my own novel before this dog at my feet eats me out of liver snacks and kibble.
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Thank God for How to Be Lost, by Amanda Eyre Ward. I’ve just spent a too-long jag of trying to remember why, exactly, I liked reading novels, when along came this one, and though I had my questions and doubts in the first couple and a half chapters, the plot lines did a nice double-back, and my assumptions shattered. I did find myself, after having spent two thirds of the novel in New Orleans and New York, wishing that we’d spent the majority of our time in Missoula (where the final third or so resides, and where the prose is sharpest, leanest, most enviable), but frankly I like it a bit loose, where I can’t really pin down either plot or style or anything else, for that matter. The novel that sets out for uniformity of voice ends up with just that, and I tend to find that tiresome. This? This is good. It picks me up when it needs to and drops me from the top of the stairs when it needs to do that. Reading How to Be Lost was a bit like drinking a cold bottle of water in one long pull. It’s cleansing. And it makes me feel like a reader again. And, not-too-incidentally, a writer as well. And finally, thankful, for having read it.
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