Several months ago, a very dear friend of mine gave me the book “Fifteen Dogs” as a present. Unforgivably, I did not get around to reading it until fairly recently despite the fact that I was instantly intrigued by the book’s premise.
In “Fifteen Dogs,” Canadian writer Andre Alexis imagines a world where the Greek gods of old walk among us. Two, Apollo and Hermes (the god of music and poetry and the god of transitions and boundaries, respectfully), take an interest in fifteen dogs who have the extreme misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – a veterinary clinic in Toronto. Apollo bets Hermes that dogs would be miserable if given human intelligence, while Hermes is convinced that at least one will die happy.
It’s a dog eat dog world
You can already guess that this does not go well for the dogs in question, who wake up in the middle of the night at the clinic and decide to escape their lives of servitude to carve out their own destinies. Over the course of the book, the dogs do what we humans did – develop a language, form a societal hierarchy and a culture, and, eventually, get into fights about what the language and culture should entail.
So far, so good. I mean, that’s how our species evolved, and look at us now! Sitting at the top of the food chain, lord of all that we see, unimaginable technology at our fingertips. Granted, we mostly use it to maim and/or kill each other and destroy the very environment from which we derive our needs, but let’s not get to bogged down in the details here.
Fairly quickly conflict arises, as some dogs seek to preserve their inherit “dog-ness” by refusing to acknowledge or develop the intelligence that was thrust upon them, while others want to see how far they can take it. One in particular, Prince, who develops poetry (it’s very nice, and believably doggish), quickly becomes a target of the top dog (hah!) and his allies. They are then forced to pursue alternative paths and find themselves unable to survive without the care of a pack or a human, and at the same time unable to ignore the new instincts that challenge and conflict with the lower status of pets.
I know humans suck, but still…
It’s not surprising that things go downhill so quickly. What is surprising is the way Alexis portrays dogs, even from the beginning, as being suspicious of and even hostile to humans. A few remain loyal to their current owners, and most of them have fond memories and a genuine love for their original owners, the ones they knew as puppies. There’s actually a very heartwarming scene towards the end where Hermes makes up partially for all the trouble he’s caused by rewarding one dog with a vision of the child he’d adored, but it stands in stark contrast to how dogs view humans in the rest of the book. At best, it seems, we are a necessary nuisance to dogs, performing the functions of the “alpha” of their pack, but not inspiring any more love than your average boss or teacher does. At worst we are vicious, cruel, unpredictable creatures who are best avoided.
Granted, that last sentence is a pretty apt description for humanity at large, but it was surprising to see it so clearly articulated from the dogs’ perspective. I expected more of the “man’s best friend” view of dogs, where their loyalty and sweetness is contrasted with our fickle nature. I’m not particularly fond of dogs myself – the small ones are adorable but I’m pretty sure that one day the bigger ones are going to turn on us and decide that fresh meat is better than packaged dog food – but even I was like “geez, I thought you liked us!”
Overall, I really enjoyed “Fifteen Dogs.” It’s well-written, it’s different, and it really makes you think about why we as humans use the gift of intelligence so cruelly. If you have a dog, however, you may find it very disconcerting. At a minimum, you’ll think twice before you ask your dog to roll over again.