The publisher’s description of the book was enough to have me thinking that it wasn’t for me. Two readers whom I respect (Ang and paddy-joe at the Palimpsest forum) convinced me otherwise and I am very glad they did. Even the Dogs is an incredibly moving novel — no matter how dreary this review might make it seem, it deserves to be read. And I fully expect to be discussing it again this summer when the 2010 Booker Prize list is announced; regardless of what is published between now and then, McGregor’s book deserves a place on that list.
It is not just the subject matter that makes Even the Dogs difficult to review. McGregor does not so much tell his story as weave it from badly-damaged raw material. The narrative voice changes, often from paragraph to paragraph. He moves back and forth in time equally frequently without warning and the point of view is often ambiguous. Part of what is so strong about the novel is his ability to slowly pull the reader into that discordant rhythm; any attempt to describe it in more detail is a spoiler in itself.
There is also a “chorus” that is introduced only a few short paragraphs after that opening sentence:
We see someone getting out of taxi parked further up the hill. She leaves the door open, and we see two carrier bags stuffed full of clothes and books and make-up on the back seat. She comes up the short flight of steps, and bangs on the door. This is Laura. She shouts through the letterbox. She gestures for the taxi-driver to wait, and goes round to the side of the building. We see her climbing on to a garage roof and in through the kitchen window of the flat. She stands in the kitchen for a few moments. She looks like she’s talking to someone. She climbs out again, drops down from the garage roof, and gets back into the taxi.
That “we” will be present throughout the book, but McGregor does not neglect the individuals that are part of this ramshackle, substance-abusing community. Permit a couple of quotes on just one, Danny:
We see Danny, running across the playing fields with Einstein limping along behind him. We peer round the corner of the flats and see him climbing on to the roof of the garages. Einstein looks up, barking and scrabbling at the garage door, and we hear the creak of a window being opened.
A few pages later, the opening to chapter two (there are five, each exploring a different aspect of the story as the body moves through the post-death stages of officialdom):
They carry the his body through the city at dusk and take him away to the morgue.
And we see Danny, stumbling away from the garages at the back of the flats, tumbling down the hill like he’s about to fall, rubbing at his cheeks with the backs of his hands in great angry gestures which look almost like punches, wiping at the tears which haven’t yet fallen from a face still twisted with fear. Einstein beside him, snapping and whining and trying to keep up, held back as always by the weight of her broken
That is not a typo at the end of that quote; suddenly breaking off one of his observations while he moves somewhere else is one of McGregor’s more effective techniques. And while the “we” introduces the characters and is always observing, those characters do acquire their own voices and stories. Danny and Laura — and a number of others — become tragically real people as the novel progresses. If you have the patience to join with the novelist in letting your mind roam, rather than asking for tidy linear development, they all come to life.
They do have some other things in common. Their situation is definitely someone else’s fault: parents, child welfare experiences, the army, the state generally. It is a handy excuse and the author (and they) know that is bullshit. They are incredibly accomplished liars, be it at the rec centre, the day shelter, the soup kitchen, the vicar’s manse. Also, being an addict is a full-time job and then some. Having scored (and usually shared) a hit, life immediately moves on to getting the next one. In fact, many of the characteristics of “normal” life (threats, opportunities, fear, hope, the value of loyalty, the cost of misplaced trust) play out in this community as well, they just play out in different ways.
As I hope the quotes illustrate, without being too much of a spoiler, the author accomplishes this with prose that is deliberately flat and unemotional; absolutely devoid of melodrama and as results-oriented as the coroner who eventually shows up late in the book. The material is so powerful in and of itself, that there is absolutely no need for flourish — for this reader, at least, all of the emotion builds of its own accord.
I’m afraid this review does a very poor job of adequately describing why this is such a good book. Trust me — it is. And trying to illustrate why would ruin the chance of letting you discover that for yourself.