Thursday, November 8, 2007

Roddy Doyle, “The Dog.”

(Publication Date: November 5, 2007)

Rating: 3.0

Does anyone share my suspicion that the stories in The New Yorker are getting shorter and shorter? I noticed this (potential) trend about six months ago, and am working to compile a formal report on the subject—watch for it in this space. Considering my ongoing investigation, I felt both vindicated and depressed upon opening up the November 5, 2007 issue of The New Yorker and discovering yet another five-page story. Upon beginning the story, however, these mixed feelings gave way to relief.

In Roddy Doyle’s “The Dog,” graying, wayward hairs indicate the passing of time, the fading of personal and interpersonal fires; in literature, this is what graying, wayward hairs generally do. Although ruminations on follicular placement and pallor are here made lengthy, they are in no way made fresh, or particularly useful. We are introduced to the couple—the unnamed protagonist and his wife, Mary—through a few ostensibly revealing hair-related moments. The manner by which the characters point out these developments is meant to shine a light on their personalities; that each is the bearer of bad news is meant to show that resentment, like the “new and black” hairs on Mary’s butt, is ever growing. Doyle ushers the hair material to a close 20% into his story: “You became yourself when you were twenty-three or twenty-four. A few years later, you had an old man’s chest hair. It wasn’t worth it.” A nice line, succinctly capturing the regret of life’s bum deal; for my money, the story could have started just about here with little lost.

Unexpectedly, Doyle does not employ a section break before heading into the story’s next movement. This seems a tacit admission that the hair material did not prove as evocative of character as Doyle might have hoped—that, by letting it stand alone, it would have left conspicuously little impact on the reader. So, without any sort of narrative transition, we receive the dovetailing tales of a saint statue tossed by the protagonist and of a missing medal gone unaccounted for (but suspected of being tossed by the wife, perhaps in retaliation for the dispatching of the statue). This could have been a nice, small exchange—a semi-mysterious happening evocative of a relationship’s growing, unspoken gamesmanship. As with the hair migration/discoloration material, however, the stuff is stretched out, with diminishing returns. Doyle reveals that the medal was earned as a runner-up prize in “The Community Games, Football—Under 10s”—a mention that, in addition to revealing a few insignificant details about the character’s pre-teen family life, begs a larger question: why must today’s writers, not only on the page but screens both small and large, so often assume easy humor and poignancy inevitably springs from the deadpan detailing of trivial accomplishments? It is condescending—not only to the audience, but to the characters.

Bring a (non-miniature) dog into a room and a smile invariably spreads across my face. Toss a pet dog into a story about a struggling relationship and I get nervous. This is particularly the case when the story is called “The Dog,” and the introduction of Emma, a Jack Russell, reads like this: “But then the dog came into the house.” And so, with this dog and this “but then,” I hear the hiss of the story’s range of possibility deflating to one of two things: 1) the dog, like an adorable ragamuffin with a messy mop top in a holiday season movie release, saves the adult relationship, or 2), dog, after perhaps providing an initial glimmer of hope, ultimately drives the final nail into the connubial coffin. This story being literary fiction—by dint of its publication address, if nothing else—the second option here seems more likely.

I do not mean to imply that a story with a familiar trajectory cannot be satisfying. Much of the most engaging, lasting fiction rests upon a battle-tested frame; it surprises and subverts through detail, language, and other innovations that feel organic to the tale being told. We all knew Humbert was going to stick it to Lolita. We also knew they would not wind up as idyllic lovers, together growing old and middle-aged, respectively. But who would have told the story the same way? I bet there are many writers who would have told the story of “The Dog” in a way similar to Doyle—although they likely would have used conventional quotation marks for the dialogue.

The stuff that happens after the dog enters their life is not seem particularly of note; I will not spoil the non-surprise by detailing it here. I feel okay in revealing that there are a few “fuckin’s” thrown into the mix that strike me as being out of the protagonist’s character, but will excite Doyle fans and a couple thousand New Yorker readers who like their fiction edgy. And there are a load of clipped sentences. “She came back. They had another row, and he walked out. It was his turn. He stayed away for hours. He went to the pictures. He came back.” Okay. Whatever. Wrap it up.

After the first magazine page—for those curious about such things, this is equal, roughly, to two pages in a book—the great hair fiasco is never again mentioned. Neither is the statue. Or the missing medal. I find this weird.

Thanks to load of short words, “The Dog” story actually ends up being about 4,100 words. Most authors could have squeezed it onto an index card.


E said...

When I finished the story I had to go back to the beginning, I had forgotten the protagonists feelings about his wife in the first section. I ended up thinking that the story is of a long rough patch that the relationship is getting back on it's feet, or maybe just that the protagonist is going to reinvest in the relationship.

Clifford Garstang said...

Thanks for visiting my blog. I will not be surprised if this turns out to be an excerpt from a novel, but I'll be annoyed, as I was when I learned that the Delillo piece was from The Falling Man. If it's an excerpt, the magazine MUST tell the reader this. Furthermore, it is my understanding that the excerpts in TNY are not really the work of the authors -- rather, the Fiction Editor extracts a thread from the piece to create something that approximates a story. In which case we should consider them "extracts" rather "excerpts". I think this works more or less on its own, but I agree there are gaps and as I write this comment the more certain I am that it is extracted from the forthcoming novel.