Dangling Man

The Dog: A Novel BY Joseph O'Neill. Pantheon. Hardcover, 256 pages. $25.

The cover of The Dog: A Novel

During the late 1990s, we saw the rise of a new literary subject: the postcolonial immigrant. In the metro-poles of the North Atlantic—in London and New York, Paris and Toronto—the protagonist emerged: a parvenu, an outsider with a sturdy work ethic, a grocer or taxi driver seeking to make it in his or her new home. There were geographical variations—the Dominicans of Junot Díaz’s Drown, the East Indians of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, the Soviet Jews of Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and the African refugees of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah—but central to these narratives was the direction of movement. The postcolonial subject moved from the outside in, from the former colony to the metropole, from beyond to the imperial center. Gatsby-like, he or she often tested the outer limits of the American dream—that still-regnant myth about capitalist self-making. The narrative arc was that of the arriviste: a story not only of assimilation and the arduous passage toward citizenship but also of accumulation and the trials of “making it.”

Today, however, we have something of a body double floating around, a doppelgänger novel. While the parvenu novel was a study of citizenship, of the ways in which former colonial subjects found success in the imperial capital, we now see a new kind of migration: that of the cosmopolitan, the emigrant, the exile pushed out into the world, spreading away from the imperial center, roots from a tree.

Unlike the parvenu novels, these new works of fiction are about the process of disintegration. Their protagonists begin in the metropoles and often end up in the provinces. Consummate insiders—bankers, lawyers, doctors, professors—they find themselves on the outside. Their stories are given shape by flight, by a sense of loss. A new kind of migratory pattern takes hold. In a state of seemingly endless movement, this new figure finds him- or herself a perennial stranger.

Andrea Lee’s 2002 Interesting Women—a collection of shrewdly observed stories about America’s bored and beautiful in the developing world—was one of the first fictional indexes of this new dispersion. But many others were to quickly follow. Nell Freudenberger’s Lucky Girls, which came a year later, sets its action in the Pacific Rim among a group of elite-educated American expats. Arthur Phillips’s Prague and Aaron Hamburger’s The View From Stalin’s Head move their Ivy Leaguers from the global South to the former Soviet bloc, and Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision splits its time between a New York City that had recently experienced the terror and traumas of third-world violence and an Ecuador reeling from several decades of first-world violence.

Perhaps at the apex of these early expatriate novels was Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland: a narrative that examines a midcareer Anglo-Dutch banker named Hans van den Broek as he moves from one metropole to the next in a state of increasing exile. A story of liberal anxiety—of the shudder of fear and moral uncertainty that ran through the West after the attacks on the twin towers—it also recounts how North Atlantic finance came to disperse its own elites. Abandoned by his family, and disillusioned by the increasingly abstract nature of his job, the novel’s narrator roams New York’s streets, pondering the distance between a person and his identity. “Selfhood’s hill always seemed to lie ahead,” he rues, and only “promises a glimpse of further, higher peaks.”

Published in the summer of 2008, Netherland arrived too early to document the cataclysmic crash of North Atlantic finance that came later that fall, but it did anticipate many of its consequences. Shadowing Hans is another recent arrival, a Trinidadian whom our narrator meets on the cricket fields of Staten Island. A West Indian Gatsby, he is as much parvenu as pariah, a character on the make, moving from the outside in and from the bottom up. But after spending much of the novel in dogged pursuit of the American dream—“a dollar and a dream,” he observes, “that’s all you need”—he comes to realize that it is just that: a dream. Not only are the hills of self-making—to use O’Neill’s somewhat overwrought image—relentless; they are lethal. The immigrant here fails to pull himself up by those proverbial bootstraps, and eventually turns up dead, a corpse in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.

Reading the novel that fall—as New York’s finance sector seemed to collapse in one fell swoop—one couldn’t help but interpret the dark, apocalyptic epigraph O’Neill borrowed from Whitman in several ways. “I dream’d in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the / whole of the rest of the earth.” New York, it turned out, was not only a city vulnerable to attacks from the rest of the world; it appeared it could do a rather good job of attacking itself—and many of its recent and long-standing citizens—from within.

Pedestrians on a waterfront promenade in downtown Dubai.
Pedestrians on a waterfront promenade in downtown Dubai.

In many ways, O’Neill’s latest novel, the Dostoyevsky-inspired The Dog, follows up on this shaken sense of vulnerability and anxiety. Featuring a protagonist working in the finance sector—this time a lawyer employed by a Wall Street firm—the novel takes place in those skittish years after the 2008 crash. A study of moral as well as geographic exile, it shows how the international banking system not only estranged but abstracted many of its elites. The Dog’s protagonist—a man whose name is so unpronounceable we only know him as X—is the consummate “insider-outsider”: Zurich-born, educated in the capitals of Northern Europe and the United States, a longtime resident of Manhattan and naturalized American citizen, X has moved to Dubai from New York City after the collapse of the bull market and his romantic life. After signing on as the in-house counsel for a wealthy Lebanese family named Batros, X moves into one of the many high-rises newly built for Western transplants in a neighborhood called Privilege Bay. His building, the Situation, better suits X than its more certain-sounding counterparts, the Statement and the Aspiration.

Life in Dubai is an eternal mystery to X. Like his predecessor in Netherland, he spends a lot of his time at work not working and a lot of his time at home not living. He is most “at home” while in motion, taking long walks, drifting in mind and body through the newly built commercial spaces—the hotel bars, the high-end restaurants, the spas and cardio gyms—which he calls “abracadabrapolis.” Navigating the labyrinthine construction sites—the half-built edifices that dot his neighborhood—he also perambulates internally, moving through a maze of memory and unconfessed guilt.

Everything for X is a madeleine. Examining the steel and glass of the Privileged Three, the triad of high-rises in his neighborhood, he yearns for “the bittersweet song I learned as a child from my mother: Il était un petit navire / Qui n’avait ja-ja-jamais navigué.” Enjoying the expert “hands” of his massage chair, he recalls a celebrity wedding he once attended, where he and his girlfriend chanced upon a waltzing Mr. and Mrs. Conrad Black. While on his way to go deep-sea diving, he imagines his past life in a rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment. The car he drives is a company Range Rover that he calls with strange pleasure the “Autobiography.”

And yet we know so little about X. A shrewd social observer—through his eyes we learn how to solicit prostitutes, to pick between various takeout menus, to navigate from one excessively air-conditioned parlor room to the next—X always remains something of a blur to us, a ghost, a body and mind without much of a past. Not only do we never come to know his name, but the curiosities of the world around him—the construction sites, the social mores, the foreign languages—also parallel a sense of internal mystery. Of the causes of his failed romance we learn details only in parts and parcels. Of his job as a Wall Street lawyer, his childhood in Zurich, his sentimental education in Dublin, his past romantic relationships, we get only glimpses. The elliptical structure of The Dog mainly circles around X’s memories, like an airplane in a holding pattern, circling above an airport. We know we are in a state of descent as the soft, blurred distance comes into greater focus. But in the end we seem to never land. We circle and circle, but we are never given clearance. Even after finishing The Dog, we are left with the question: Who is X? To this mystery, there is no answer. As X puts it: “No first-person news to declare.”

Other mysteries abound. As in Netherland, there is a disappearance, a death perhaps. Ted Wilson—a roving adjunct historian turned Emirati propagandist—goes missing, possibly while deep-sea diving off the coast of Dubai. Unlike his fellow Persian Gulf divers, Wilson likes to go it alone, turning off his flashlight and throwing himself into the dark. His diving suit is a mix of dark and light greens that mimic the murk below, and it’s rumored that he spends as much time in the sea as he does working and living ashore. He also might have good reason to avoid surface life. As we learn from X, there are two Mrs. Ted Wilsons, both of whom are desperate to find him. “Everybody out here is on the run,” the first Mrs. Ted Wilson complains to X. “You’re all runners.”

We never learn just where Ted Wilson has run off to. Does he drown in a diving accident? Is he the man who jumps from the rooftop of X’s building midway through the novel? Has he perhaps finally landed that tenure-track job at an elite university back in the United States? Unlike the mystery at the heart of Netherland, this one does not feature a corpse. O’Neill gives us only rumors, a set of hunches. We are left—to borrow a phrase X uses to describe his relationship with his ex-girlfriend—in “Perhapsburg.” Ambiguity and a growing sense of regret are all we have. Like the gaping hole in the lot adjacent to X’s apartment building, there is only a void, a vacancy where there might have been, in another novel and moment, a foundation.

In fact, not knowing is one of the central themes of The Dog. Disappearances, internal and external exile, the near darkness of deep-sea diving, the empirical and politically neutral social analysis, the statelessness, the frequent self-pleasure, the litigious laundry lists of guilt—all this is about peeling the onion, revealing just how endless the layering is. As the old line goes, “It’s turtles all the way down” in The Dog. “A fact,” as X observes on discovering some financial improprieties, “is where it all starts to go wrong.”

That X refuses to work toward conclusions is not merely an epistemological problem but a spiritual one. X believes he has reached the end of any kind of moral certitude. It is not so much out of a willful protest that he refuses to know the world; it is now by nature and condition. Living in a secular and ever more cosmopolitan age, he has arrived at a moment of such heightened abstraction that he has lost sight of the bonds—moral, political, social—that once anchored our common assumptions. “There’s no such thing as ‘to get’ something,” he thinks to himself. “The inevitable consequence of resolving knotty unknown A is the creation of knotty unknown B.” We can, as he later puts it, only “recognize and mistrust [our] judgmental propensity, belonging as it does to an animal whose so-called ethical sense comes not from above but from a primeval epoch of natural selection in which cooperative grouping resulted in better outcomes.”

The Dog might be a novel that resists declaring a set of truths, but it does have its origins, its literary references. It’s in direct conversation with its predecessor, seeking to shrink its lyrical and moral ambitions, undermining them, tunneling below until the structures above cave in. In The Dog, O’Neill does not depart from the lyrical realism that we’ve come to expect from much of Anglo-American fiction. But it does stretch its conventions so thin that they begin to show through. Where there once was a taut pairing of social observation and lyrical confession, we now often get loose, discursive asides. A strange turn of phrase, a social tic, a political sensibility—all stimulate X’s interest but then lose focus under the battery of anxieties he has about knowledge. Likewise, while Netherland ends with a love- and homesick protagonist returning to his family, The Dog closes on a more sinister note: Those comforts—of home and membership—are no longer available. X’s groping search for clarity, the longing for moral and romantic commitments, is no longer a path to fulfillment; the search itself is his fate.

Like Netherland, The Dog will also certainly invite comparisons to The Great Gatsby, with its seemingly naive and unattached narrator dedicating much of his time to contemplating the mysteries of another figure who has remade himself almost entirely. The comparison is apt enough, if rather uninspired. But in many ways the true antecedent for The Dog is not Fitzgerald but Dostoyevsky, in particular The Eternal Husband: a haunting (and much neglected) novella that follows a protagonist who is reacquainted with and then stalked by the man he cuckolded years before. The Eternal Husband—like its later shadows, Saul Bellow’s The Victim and J. M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg—is a study of the ways that guilt can consume the body and mind. It is also an examination of shifting personalities, of merging identities, of the mania created by a world that no longer permits us to operate with much self-assurance. At root The Dog, like The Eternal Husband, is a ghost tale: a narrative of haunting, of the ways in which we as moderns—enlightened, secular, educated creatures—still spook ourselves.

The Dog gives new life to these anxieties, capturing the ever softening pulse of our sense of who we are, where we belong, what crimes we have committed, and what we hope to change about ourselves. It also concludes in much the same way that Dostoyevsky and his twentieth-century heirs did: with an act of self-abnegation, in which X allows himself to be arrested for the financial improprieties and infelicities of his employer, the Batros family.

In The Dog, we never meet the injured parties—the cuckolded husbands, the distressed girlfriends, the low-wage day laborers who X knows are suffering at his expense. In fact, the cuckolding never happens, the injuries to his longtime partner are never entirely made clear, the suffering of those exploited by the construction of Abracadabrapolis is never exposed. X fantasizes about having an affair with both Mrs. Ted Wilsons but never does. He yearns to meet—and even to help—Dubai’s underclass, but only donates to an NGO. He leaves his girlfriend and yet longs for a reunion. The Dog is a novel built on crimes never revealed—perhaps, in some cases, never committed—and as we come to its end, all we are left with is the search for forgiveness and that long shudder of regret.

David Marcus is coeditor of Dissent and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, where he is working on a history of American political thought since the 1950s. He last wrote for Bookforum on Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust.