Room Theory

Adam Mars-Jones

  • The Dog by Joseph O’Neill
    Fourth Estate, 241 pp, £16.99, July 2014, ISBN 978 0 00 727574 8

If the first page of a novel is its front door, then the epigraphs that some writers like to install on the approach to it correspond to value-adding features such as carriage-lamps or stone lions, often having more to do with the resident’s self-image than with the architecture. Grandeur has its obligations: if your three epigraphs are from Antigone, Bunyan (Grace Abounding) and Goethe (Faust Part Two), you’d better follow through with something formidable – as Under the Volcano does.

Joseph O’Neill’s second epigraph for his new novel, The Dog, is from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or (‘I feel as a chessman must feel when the opponent says of it: That piece cannot be moved’), his first from Macbeth: ‘Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.’ The quotation is so familiar that when there’s a riff on the word ‘blood’, even two hundred pages later, it resonates with a definite ping. Its status as a key passage could hardly be clearer if it came already marked-up in highlighter pen, fluorescing on the page. O’Neill’s narrator, after mentioning that pearl divers were essentially the property of those who owned the boats, attempts to establish an important distinction:

I’m not saying they were blood pearls, counterparts of today’s blood diamonds. I don’t have the evidence to support this grave charge. (We should be wary of applying the noun adjunct ‘blood’ to everything and anything that comes to us with the taint of exploited labour. It would devalue the usefulness of the term; there would be no end to it. One cannot live in a world of blood pants, blood bread, blood spoons, blood saltshakers, blood water and blood air.)

Usefulness rather than truth isn’t the most elevated criterion in philosophical terms, but it’s certainly the case that an undiscriminating taking on of guilt can become an abdication of individual conscience. Blanket culpability becomes a comfort blanket. This is what the narrator struggles against.

His name is a common one, he tells us, but he was known in his previous job in New York (an attorney for a large firm, representing his own clients) by the letter X, one of his initials. If he wants to screen out irrelevant results while searching for himself online he inserts the X. In an online photograph from a long-ago corporate softball event in Central Park he is misidentified as Graham Herold, so there’s at least one name that can be crossed off the list of possibles. Frustrated in his new post, as administrator for various funds of the plutocratic Batros family, he drafts emails of protest and reproach that he never sends. The locus classicus of the unsent letter trope is Herzog – any subsequent writer needs to reckon with the richness of its rhetoric. O’Neill doesn’t do much to make the device his own: perhaps he doesn’t feel the threat from a stronger, greedier organism, Saul Bellow’s meat-and-pickle breath on the back of his neck.

When Moses Herzog started to heckle the world on pieces of paper, he was two marriages down and busy resisting the claims of another woman. X. has had only one real relationship in his life, with a work colleague named Jenn, which broke down because of what X. diagnoses with wan pedantry (something of a trademark) as different approaches to ‘room theory’:

how many more rooms did two persons in occupation of a one-bedroom need in circumstances where (i) the two persons were almost never simultaneously in the one-bedroom; (ii) on the rare occasion that the two persons were simultaneously in the one-bedroom, almost always one or both of them was asleep and therefore unconscious; (iii) on the still rarer occasion that the two persons were simultaneously in the one-bedroom and simultaneously conscious, almost always one person was in the bedroom and the other was in the bathroom or the living room?

In fiction pretend-dull characters can easily cross the border into the plain dull, and are unlikely to make the return trip if they do – crabbed obsessives just aren’t good company, which makes Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire a harder narrator to sell than the suavely sulphurous Humbert Humbert. The obvious answer to X.’s rhetorical question is that Jenn wanted a baby and therefore more space, and managed not to notice that there was no room in her partner’s life for these complementary expansions. In practice that was all the room theory she needed to have.

It’s tricky to convey a character’s awareness of lack of awareness, in first-person narrative above all, and the phrase used here – ‘my own inadequacies as an emotions-communicator’ – lies at the limit of what can be managed in this line, if not a little beyond. This, after all, is the way he understands commitment within a relationship:

The essence of monogamy does not consist in abstention from third-party sexual relations but in the dedication of sexual activity to a single person. In other words, the wilfully sexually inactive spouse is not being monogamous: he/she is being celibate. Those who are in doubt as to the conjugal significance of celibacy are referred to its historic synonymity with the Latin source-word, caelibatus: ‘state of being unmarried.’ Properly understood, then, the intentional celibate, in his/ her contravention of the vow of fidelity, is in the same boat of transgression as the intentional adulterer.

The little sex he and Jenn had with each other was ‘clearly a disturbance of a celibate status quo rather than an enactment of a monogamous one’. Some lawyers find it hard to turn the clock off out of office hours.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in