Joseph O’Neill’s “The Dog” arrives trailing clouds of glory from his previous novel, “Netherland,” which was longlisted for the Booker Prize, won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award and managed to make cricket cool in America. Set in the aftermath of Sept. 11, “Netherland” told the story of a depressed financial analyst estranged from his wife, but that plot was more garnish than meal. What the book really offered was O’Neill’s reflections on New York, relationships, ambition and especially cricket — all spun in sentences so clever that the destination hardly mattered.
Sachin Tendulkar, one of the greatest players ever, once said, “Life without cricket is unthinkable,” and now O’Neill seems determined to prove that fiction without cricket is unbearable. This time, we’re in Dubai with a depressed lawyer estranged from his longtime girlfriend, and once again, the storyline has been beaten to airy thinness. Even the narrator’s name has been radically attenuated, reduced to the single letter X, which, as a symbol of evaporated identity, is about as subtle as getting whacked in the face with a cricket bat.
We’re dealing with a man who introduces himself by claiming that “the accumulation of experience amounts, when all is said and pondered, simply to extra weight.” Given that disparaging opinion of what non-depressed people might call “plot,” it’s not surprising to find a novel that feels both weighty and inconsequential, an addition to that genre of stories about adrift, disaffected middle-aged men. X is a comically, absurdly and finally maddeningly digressive narrator, a human Internet of hyperlinks that lead everywhere but have no real purpose.
You don’t mind at first because nobody choreographs a pas de deux of wit and despair quite as elegantly as O’Neill. In the wake of a soul-crushing breakup with his girlfriend in New York, X accepts a job in Dubai from a longtime acquaintance who thinks, mistakenly, that X is a friend of Donald Trump. As the new trustee of the Batros Group, X is charged with supervising a $500 million fortune that supports a profligate Middle Eastern clan. The Batros Group is, obviously, a shell corporation composed of legal and illegal enterprises, and X’s job involves nothing more than sitting in an office for a few hours a day rubber-stamping documents he doesn’t understand.
Despite its exotic, gold-plated setting, “The Dog” belongs in that putty-colored file cabinet of office satires that stretch from “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to “Then We Came to the End.” O’Neill’s innovation is to assure us that meaningless work is just as mind-numbing at $500 an hour as it is at minimum wage. X spends much of his day composing “mental-mail,” fantastical e-mail messages that he’s too cowardly to send — or even write. He’s an ineffective, chronically ruminative man who thinks of himself as a “supererogatory weirdo.” “Mine is the inevitable fate of the overwhelmed fiduciary: inextinguishable boredom and fear of liability.”
The location of his new job only aggravates X’s deepening sense of disassociation. Awash in cash, Dubai is a “land of signs to nowhere,” a place divorced from the rules of ordinary life, even from the laws of physics. In that indefatigable voice that seems to keep speaking as a last-ditch act of survival, our narrator describes “an abracadabrapolis in which buildings flopped against each other and skyscrapers looked wobbly or were rumpled or might be twice as tall and slender as the Empire State Building, a city whose coastline featured bizarre man-made peninsulas as well as those already-famous artificial islets known as The World, so named because they were grouped to suggest, to a bird’s eye, a physical map of the world; a city where huge stilts rose out of the earth and disappeared like Jack’s beanstalk, three hundred meters up, into a synthetic cloud.”
For X, though, “this wonderland was the same as any other human place: it boiled down to a bunch of rooms.” He goes on to tell us, “I had a theory or two about rooms.” In fact, X has a theory or two or 200 about everything.
“One way to sum up the stupidity of this phase of my life,” he says, “would be to call it the phase of insights.” And insights are what we get — a breathless rush of insights about architecture, labor law, toenails, teenagers, gossip, pornography, immigrants and scuba diving. Insights, it seems, are all that are left of this bright but ruined man. While fantasizing about playing the hero in strangers’ lives, he takes great interest in a bigamist who abandoned his American wife in Dubai. He frets about the reputation of his apartment building vis-à-vis a neighboring apartment building. As a bulwark against suicidal depression, he gloms onto brand names and marketing lingo with religious fervency.
With this ever-mutating monologue, X is engaged in a futile act of talking himself into existence, proving his worth by his carefully documented sensitivity and accountability. The sentences — many stretching to hundreds of words — form a glittery parody of legal prose, crowded with exceptions and explanations and (parenthetical (asides (sometimes (nested (six (deep)))))). A pedicure inspires his disquisition on his clients’ responsibilities to freelance laborers. He donates large sums of money to charity. He hounds the maids to accept tips. He’s so self-conscious about behaving ethically that he assures us that the Internet porn he’s watching involves only respectful husband-and-wife actors.
There’s no denying that every page of “The Dog” is a little masterpiece of comedy, erudition and linguistic acrobatics. The question is: How much of this can you endure? How long does it take to feel the full import of X’s harrowing loneliness? Arthur Phillips made this work with his brilliant debut novel, “Prague.” But “Dog” is closer to the kill-me-now tedium of Jonathan Lethem’s “Chronic City.”
When I started reading a chapter of “The Dog” to my wife, she thought I was being far too critical, but as the pages wore on, she felt an urgent need to check on the laundry. I envied her.
Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews appear in Style every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Joseph O’Neill, Pantheon. 241 pp. $25.95