August 29, 2008

Michelle de Kretser: The Lost Dog

Posted in Booker Prize 2008, de Kretser Michelle at 8:00 am by John Self

I left Michelle de Kretser’s novel The Lost Dog for near the end of my Booker Prize longlist reading, as I’d been warned by others that it was a pretty knotty read, particularly at the beginning. The other features which distinguish it – how nice it is to try to form an opinion on a book before reading it – are that it’s the fifth book of the thirteen-strong longlist which is set wholly or partly in the Indian subcontinent (“The judges are pleased with the geographical balance of the longlist” – M. Portillo), and that boasts the oddest author photo of all the longlisted titles, in which de Kretser appears to be casting a spell. But did she – boom-tischcast a spell on this reader?

The lost dog of the title is a red herring, what Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin, a mere springboard on which to launch a story equal parts dizzying and dazzling. We never even learn the dog’s name, but it belongs to Tom Loxley, and he will spend the rest of the book searching for it, and other things besides. Tom is a writer, trying to complete a book on Henry James, but through his personal connection with the artist Nelly Zhang, he is drowning in the world of visuals. He is frustrated that his only response to a painting is, How beautiful.

Pictures belong to the world of things. They cannot be contained in language. Tom was still susceptible to their immanent hostility. It had persuaded him, as a student, to concentrate on literature. There he was at home in the medium. For all their shifting play, narratives did not exceed his grasp. He paid them the tribute of lucid investigation and they unfolded before him.

This could be a shot across the bows from de Kretser: pay attention! – or alternatively a wink at what is to follow. Lucid investigation is both required and repelled by the early scenes in the book, where the reader is thrown into Tom’s world and left to sink or swim. Most of the book’s characters appear here, in choppy montages which give fair impressions of both the milieux – the Australian contemporary art scene; India in previous decades – and the characters – artists, their agents and hangers-on, and cantankerous family members.

What’s interesting about these scenes is that it’s their impressionistic nature which satisfies much more than longer, more immersive chapters would. The epigraph of the book, by James (he haunts the story) is “The whole of anything can never be told,” and it’s by not trying to to tell the whole that de Kretser succeeds in providing a rounded picture. The structure settles a little after a time, but the high-definition style remains, so that de Kretser can skewer a character with the greatest economy.

A glass-fronted cabinet held a harlequin, a corsair, a ballerina, a drummer boy, a Bo Peep with a crook wreathed in flowers and a lilac dress bunched up over a sprigged underskirt. Once a week Audrey murmured to small porcelain people of love while holding them face down in soapy water.

Audrey is Tom’s aunt, sister to his mother Iris, and one of the great monsters in the book. Tom’s struggles to deal with his elderly mother as she loses her independence provide the emotional anchor of the story, where again de Kretser shows that less is more, and that implication can be more powerful than detail. Audrey, who “disliking waste, never disposed of a grievance that had not been squeezed dry,” provides a counterpoint to this filial and familial tenderness.

‘Did you see my Berber? Ruined.’

‘If you could arrange steam-cleaning, I’d fix you up, of course.’

But that was too simple an outcome.

‘Well, if you think I didn’t do a good enough job on that carpet.’

As with Linda Grant in The Clothes on their Backs, there is a sense sometimes that de Kretser has cast her concerns too wide, so many multitudes does the book seem to contain. There is much here on the value of art as experience and artefact, best depicted by Nelly Zhang’s apparent practice of photographing her paintings and then destroying them. She inhabits “the modern age, the age of the image.” Her creation of images of images balances Tom’s writing about writing. Such dualities abound in the book, not least in the theme of differing interpretations of events and experiences. One thread concerns the identity of a figure a drunken man saw on a beach when Iris’s husband went missing. Another deals in how viewers approach paintings, and readers books: “Tom would have spoken of the formal qualities of Chekhov’s tale, its understated, almost offhand treatment of love, and evasive resolution. All this Nelly omitted or missed in favour of detail and implication.” Such a theme is doubly striking when reading a Booker longlisted book, and aware of all the interpretations which other readers – judges, bloggers, reviewers – have placed on it and how they differ from one’s own. Once again, Henry James seems to have something to say connected to this: “Experience is never limited, and it is never complete.”

One of the most striking things about The Lost Dog is de Kretser’s meticulous use of language, which can find the telling word with apparent ease (Nelly’s laugh is “disgraceful”; the drunk referred to earlier has an “unfastened” face), or overdo things somewhat and seem to strain for effect (“he was driven also to remark the ambiguities eddying her surface”). The book is bursting with de Kretser’s talent and ambition, and there is no doubt that this is one of the most interesting and rewarding titles on the Booker longlist. More than that, it will surely repay a second reading, which is no small feat in a list where many of the titles don’t repay a first.

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22 Comments »

  1. You make it sound very good actually, which is something of a relief after this longlist.

    Quite honestly though, this line “Once a week Audrey murmured to small porcelain people of love while holding them face down in soapy water.” alone persuaded me to add it to my TBR pile. That is quite simply brilliant.

    Just Northern Clemency to go now John?

  2. adevotedreader said,

    I’m relieved to hear you liked this as the Booker longlist so far seems to have been underwhelming! I bought it today and am looking forward to finding out if I agree with you.

  3. Much like The Gathering last year, this is the “good” book that I least liked, one that had much of interest and much that turned me away. And much like The Gathering, it keeps coming to my mind in a whirl of intrigue and frustration. Unfortunately, again like The Gathering it wasn’t one I want to read again to get a higher pay off.

    I’m glad you liked it, though, John. And your review is a very lucid look at a sometimes difficult book.

  4. KevinfromCanada said,

    I’m sorry we put all the pressure on you John, but you met it very successfullly — this is an excellent review of this book.

    I have been struck by the different reactions to The Lost Dog on the MB site (and particularly Trevor’s dislike of it — which even he seems to admit puzzles him). I’d like to offer an explanation, which I think is consistent with your review.

    Tom is a character who experiences the world by observation rather than participation (there is a passage about midway through the book that actually deals with this thought — I can’t give a page reference because I loaned my copy to a friend). If you want, he is an observant introvert. I would also say that one of the reasons that I liked this book so much is that I too am an observant introvert. I’d note that those who don’t like this book tend to prefer books with much more extroverted central characters — and I mean that as an observation, not a criticism. For me, the success of this book is that it brings together several major themes (his family history, his work, his “love” and his search) and uses that to develop the conflicts that these create for this kind of personality. While I acknowledge my own problems with de Kretser’s language, those themes are so well developed that I think this is an excellent novel. John’s last sentence is completely correct for me — it took a second reading to realize that I liked this book so much.

  5. Oh good I have been toying with reading this and now I think I will. You were right about the Girl in Blue. It is so overwrought I feel I should read it while striding up and down the room and pulling at my hair. So many italics – so many exclamation marks.

  6. Sam said,

    Whatever people feel about the rights and wrongs of Portillo’s comment on ‘the geographical balance’ of the longlist, it’s not worth getting too hung up on the term. However, it might be worth pointing out that the subcontinent includes many countries and that what we actually have on the list is one book by a writer formerly from Sri Lanka, two writers from India, and two with connections to Pakistan. All three of these countries have cultures distinct from each other (and each of these countries contains within them further distinct cultures) and all three of these countries have different national languages (and each of these countries contain within them many more distinct ‘state’ languages). Further, it’s not really fair to say the books all hail from one part of the world: the distance between Sri Lanka and Pakistan is about the same as that between Manchester and New York.

    I’m not sure whether ‘the geographical balance’ of the list would have altered if there’d been a couple of New Zealand epics and a South African writer thrown in, but if they had been I’m beginning to doubt whether people would have found the need to comment on the number of titles from The New World, say. The current complaints do seem to be particular to the subcontinent.

    Anyway, I think a far more worthwhile and literary comparison would be look at the stylistic similarities in the judges’ choices. I’ve only read two of the titles, so going by that and the reviews of the others’ the judges do seem to have favoured a certain kind of stylistic phrasemaking and comic brio. As a result, more restrained and spare works such as the Galgut and the Garner seem to have suffered. Which just goes to show what a lottery it all is: it’s possible that a jury like this might not have awarded ‘Disgrace’ the title in 1999. Now, that would have been a disgrace. Boom-tish.

  7. John Self said,

    You’re right Sam: I am of course mischief-making when I go on about the ‘geographical balance’ comment, though I do think it was a silly thing for Portillo to say. If the best thirteen books of the year were all from India, or Australia, or Ireland, then so what? But he did imply (“I would have been concerned if we hadn’t produced a balanced list”) that it was an active factor in his own considerations, and presumably as chairman he gets to exert his influence.

    In fairness to my comment above, I didn’t claim that de Kretser’s book, by a Sri Lankan/Australian, hailed from the same part of the world, but that it was set partly in India, which matches it up with The Enchantress of Florence, The White Tiger and Sea of Poppies. A Case of Exploding Mangoes is set in Pakistan, but I think it’s fair to conflate the two for rhetorical purposes given that they were the effectively the same ‘country’ until 60 years ago. I’d make the same point if Portillo had made his geographical balance point and then produced a longlist which had almost 40% of the books set in Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, rather than being less likely to arouse comment, that would be even more noteworthy as they’re much less populous countries.

    Stylistic similarities? Perhaps. Certainly there is a lack, as you say, of what one might call good plain prose. I don’t always agree with Orwell when he said that “good prose is like a window pane,” if by that he meant, as is commonly thought, that it should be clear and unadorned – plate glass rather than stained glass. However a little of that wouldn’t have gone amiss. There’s not much comic brio in the likes of Girl in a Blue Dress or Child 44. They do however have an overworked feel where their author’s ambition exceeds their ability.

    Kevin, your analysis I think is spot on. As I was writing my post above, I was conscious that there were whole swathes of the book which I didn’t touch on, which emphasises even more the sheer volume of subjects and ideas in a relatively short book (very short by the standards of the longlist, where the average length was 400+ pages). Yet de Kretser seems to get away with it.

    Yes Max, just The Northern Clemency to go. I don’t think I’ll be giving anything away if I say the Booker list ended on a low point for me. But I’ll expand on that in the next few days.

  8. Sam said,

    ‘but I think it’s fair to conflate the two for rhetorical purposes’ – now there speaks an Amis fan!

    Those books are set partly or wholly in India, but then all the other novels (with the possible exception of the Toltz) are set partly or wholly in Western Europe (which, incidentally, is less populous and has fewer distinct and recognised languages than India). As you say, so what? But I don’t the implication that ‘geographical balance’ was an active factor in Portillo’s decision-making is quite as strong as you suggest. (It may well have been a subconscious factor, but he can’t help that.) I read the comment more in the spirit that now that the list has been chosen he was relieved to find that they’d got a good spread of countries represented. Which I have some sympathy with. I mean, if I was heading up a committee asked to come up with a top-13 from submissions by writers from 157 (or whatever) countries, and we’d finished up with a list of books by thirteen writers all from Kettering, then I think I’d too have been a tad concerned that something might have gone freakishly wrong in the whole process I was supposed to be in charge of.

  9. John Self said,

    That’s fair enough Sam. All I can add is that – disregarding novels which have strongly divided opinion such as The White Tiger (complete unanimity of opinion would be rather alarming) – there does seem to be wide agreement on the Booker Prize site at least that there’s no place on the longlist for titles such as Girl in a Blue Dress and Child 44. A list of 13 ‘best’ books with those two on it? Now that’s what I call freakishly wrong.

  10. kimbofo said,

    There’s an interesting podcast with the author on the Guardian website which has further cemented my desire to read this book. She says she’s not a “dyed in the wool Marxist” but she wanted to explore the concept of rampant consumerism and whether it actually made people happy.

    You can listen to it here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/audio/2008/jun/17/booktrustteenageprize

    Thanks for telling us about the concept of the MacGuffin — I love it!

  11. Paul said,

    I’m going to read this one. I think I’ll like it.

  12. Paul said,

    How embarassing, I posted my comment by mistake before finishing writing it.

    I just like the sound of this novel. All the reviews I have read have intruiged me, I like the premise, I get a sense of the mood of a work by reading around reviews, and now the John Self seal of approval, it’s on my list.

  13. Sam said,

    Paul, for what it’s worth, I thought it was great. Of those on the longlist I’ve only read this and ‘Netherland’ (the others don’t intrigue me at all), and I really enjoyed them both (with ‘Netherland’ having the slight edge).

  14. Paul said,

    Cheers Sam, I’m quite looking forward to this now.

  15. KevinfromCanada said,

    Not to be too chauvanistally grumpy, but how could a geographically diverse list of the Commonwealth exclude both South Africa and Canada?

  16. I agree with Kevin. And I also don’t think the books that take place in India do anything special to distinguish between the variety of cultures there. If anything, I felt that they conflate India too, which is why I thought it got a bit redundant in a year of “geographic diversity.” Not that I think geographic diversity should be the overriding factor in determining the thirteen best novels of the year, but I’m not convinced the judges had “best literature” as their guiding light in selecting the list.

  17. KevinfromCanada said,

    Despite my comment about Canada and South Africa (which was made half in jest, I confess — of my two favorite “Canadian” books this year, one is set in Sarajevo — The Cellist of Sarajevo — and the other in India — The Toss of a Lemon — so I can’t really be down on the jury for overlooking any book that explores Canada), I am inclined to agree with Sam’s comment — the jury chose what they thought were the 13 books for the list and Portillo then commented how happy he was that that list had geographic diversity. It’s kind of chicken and egg — did diversity produce the list or did the list produce diversity? I’m inclined to think the latter — I respect John Snow’s opinions, but I think he may be beating a dead horse on Portillo’s comment. The true clunkers on the longlist for me (Child 44, The Northern Compacency) don’t have anything to do with geographic diversity. Even my least favorite of the non-Western-world novels — The White Tiger — has enough to it that I can at least build a case for why others would support it beyond its geographic location. I do think it raises important issues, I just don’t think it does that very well — but as the posts on the MB site show, others are much more enthusiastic about the author’s success in doing that.

  18. [...] Asylum [...]

  19. [...] reviews of TLD are at Asylum, The Age, and [...]

  20. [...] de Kretser, “Il cane scomparso tra le foglie “/The lost dog – Tom studia Henry James, perde il suo cane nei boschi dell’outback, si occupa [...]

  21. Cameron said,

    I just finished The Lost Dog. I am only Seventeen and couldn’t put this book down. I admit, there was a few phrases and words which I needed to re-read and get a dictionary out for assistance but it’s this books underlying messages that I truly loved. The passages to do with Iris’ growing health worries had me thinking about my parents and what they will be like in their old age, it had me pondering about the loss of my pets and how I would cope and I was intruiged by the character Nelly as she was so odd, but likeable. The character of Tom was hands down my favorite. Michelle de Kretser really knows how to “knit” a rivetting story. Initially when I started reading, I was confused by the sudden flash backs and jumps, but once I got over my confusion, I loved all the flash back passages and sudden movements with this novel. Although I can’t see alot of my friends (or really any people my age) reading and enjoying this book as much as I have, this sense of a love story, mystery and themes on growing old are all ideas and things that will affect everyone at some point in their life. I want to commend Michelle’s skills at writing and I sincerely hope to read more of her in the near future! This is just a standout piece of Literature.

  22. Irene Salt said,

    A rewarding book. Much can be learned of Art,Wriiting, India,the patient curbing of overwhelming curoisity, and how to treat one’s mother and aunt in extremely iritating circustance. And – I was so glad they found the dog


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