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.

X. shows at various points that he has a sense of what his life, and even life in general, should be about. It’s ‘a forgotten zoological fact: solo survival is not and has never been humanly feasible.’ ‘At home – chez soi – one is a potentate; one may grant an outsider relief from the outside; and this must be what I yearn for.’ ‘I think that what I’ve wanted, most of all, is someone nice and safe to hang out with.’ Plus, despite his failure to reproduce with Jenn, ‘I have always wanted daughters.’ Nevertheless he disqualifies himself from future relationships (‘never again me-woman’). He has a strategy of ‘jerking off at least four or five times a week, without which I would be in danger of not extinguishing, or not keeping in check, the natural desire to copulate and then mate.’ His chosen environment after New York loads the dice against the sort of pairing-off seen as normal in most places. He moves to Dubai to work for the Batros family, whose son he knew in college.

It’s not that O’Neill fails to particularise Dubai as a physical and social landscape, the prestige apartment buildings that overlook sites of further construction, the boutique eateries that offer ice cream made from camel milk. This is a very stratified world, in which the non-domiciled Westerners socialise after work in hollowly luxurious and interchangeable restaurants, while the residents are under no obligation to queue in shops, gliding past less securely entitled customers. ‘Bidoons’ – people whose arrival or whose family’s arrival postdates 1925 and the end of British rule and predates 1971 and the creation of the United Arab Emirates – have no identity cards and no rights. The problem is that the character and his environment dovetail so very neatly. The challenge, in a novel with a Dubai setting, where even those with allegedly enviable jobs seem little more than plutocratic galley slaves, hands blistered as they keep time plying the oars of gold, would be finding a way to give a non-dom hero a life of emotional richness and continued connection.

In all his time in Dubai X. has hardly crossed the threshold of a private residence. This is a place where it’s normal, or if not normal then not definingly abnormal, for a sporty professional man called Don Sanchez to move into X.’s building largely on the basis of its suitability for ‘vertical athletics’: ‘he loved the high-quality run offered by the brand-new stairway, which had great handrails, bright, yellow-edged steps, and good lighting.’ The narrator joined him on his runs for a while, then made the drastic step of asking Don over for a drink. It wasn’t a success, though X. ‘confided various things to Don’ and received in his turn the disclosure that ‘every year or three, he’d come across a staircase that would really grab him, and, other things being equal, he’d relocate to the building in question in order to run in it.’ The extreme social experiment of inviting someone over for a drink was even repeated, but ‘after a couple of somehow frightening evenings over the course of which each of us was, there can be little doubt, impressed more and more powerfully by the mental illness of the other, we restricted our friendship to the stairs.’ ‘Friendship’ seems too strong a word in this context, but no doubt it was all getting oppressively intimate. At X.’s new address – ‘The Situation’ – he can patrol the perimeters of selfhood with greater vigilance. (Just as he lives in the Situation, he drives a model of Range Rover called the Autobiography.)

Dubai isn’t the only place in the book that brings strong associations with it. X.’s mother was Swiss, and though he has some memories of her country they are likely to be drowned out for the reader by the usual resonances of ‘Switzerland’, a place of neutrality without principle, its Alpine valleys resounding not so much to the sound of music as to Orson Welles’s speech in The Third Man about the vapidity of a culture that denies conflict. When X. visits an exhibition of photographs of Scott’s last expedition, he adds one more inhospitable environment (two if you count the name of the gallery, The Empty Quarter).

*

It isn’t a genre requirement that the central figures of novels be positive in their temperaments: David Lurie in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, for instance, is stubborn and curmudgeonly, with a streak of self-sabotage a mile wide. It isn’t even a requirement that they be sane, as shown not only by Nabokov’s Kinbote but by the narrator of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, whose rapturous and obsessive accounts of the joys of office life have a suppressed hysteria that’s spelled out in the over-explicit working title of ‘Desperation’. As with the choice of a Dubai setting, it would be much more of a challenge for O’Neill to give X.’s working life as an e-pen pusher vitality than to show it as existentially null. Being part of a cadre at work in New York didn’t suit X., particularly after he broke up with Jenn and the group perception of him changed, but autonomy isn’t his thing either. In Dubai he’s supposed to be in charge of something, though it’s hard to imagine what. He’s less an agent than a buffer between agents. His job is hollow, but he spends a lot of time hollowing it out even further. ‘Mine is the inevitable fate of the overwhelmed fiduciary,’ as he says, ‘inextinguishable boredom and fear of liability.’ In his search for indemnity he orders customised rubber stamps of disclaimer to accompany his signature, and sets up a website that specifies the standard terms and conditions limiting the implications of his actions.

In other words, what X. wants to avoid is not guilt but responsibility of any sort. Though concerned about the conditions of labour experienced by construction workers in Dubai, for instance, some of whom are required to wear corporate uniforms before they even make the trip, ‘so that they travel to and arrive in Dubai already colour-coded’, he is satisfied that he has given ‘the situation of the foreign labour corps, and my relation to it, an appropriate measure of consideration and action’. There follows a full page of logically subclassified paragraphs, in the mode of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, leading up to the revelation that he makes over a total of 37 per cent of his gross salary to Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch. For a precious few moments he commands the moral high ground over the book’s readers, few of whom are likely to make comparable sacrifices, until the realisation dawns that this is merely the outsourcing of one more function, in this case conscience: ‘Because I accept as a given that Dubai labourers are very badly treated, I don’t owe it to the labourers to take steps to find out about exactly what kind of mistreatment they suffer from.’

In his dealings with prostitutes (the jerking-off regime needs to be reinforced with other styles of release to ward off intimacy effectively), X. seeks to exonerate himself within the scenario of paid sex: ‘I insist only on niceness … if she doesn’t want to be in this room, neither do I.’ If she wanted to be in the room, it would be a date, which is exactly what he doesn’t want. His ideal of relationship seems to be equality without overlap – not in fact a relationship. No doubt there are people whose psychology fits this description, but they don’t write books, since what builds up between writer and reader has much in common with a relationship. The reader of The Dog, deprived of overlap, is deprived also of a sense of play, not comedy as such (there are some jokes in the book) but play almost in the engineering sense, the shifting of dynamics as non-rigid elements adjust to each other, the primed attention within the book and the probing attention coming from outside that activates it.

A spectacularly ugly piece of phrasing about the ‘peristalsis of circumstance, which forces one forward as a turd is forced’ may express the self-disgust behind the narrator’s indecisiveness, but it doesn’t make that indecisiveness any less dead on the page. In one of his few memories of his ineffectual father, a failure in business, he remembers playing a game of Monopoly with his schoolfriends, with his father dragooned into taking part. ‘The board was crowded with red hotels. My father’s silver top hat was sent directly to jail, and for a while he was blamelessly and correctly exempt from the buying and selling and bankrupting and bargaining. He wore a huge smile throughout his captivity. If he was ever happier, I don’t recall it.’ The son may have tried to reject his psychological inheritance, but it’s near his own core. On the book’s last page there is a passage about Conrad Black, for whom X. feels ‘a certain respect and sympathy – and, is it possible, envy’. Black is ideally disgraced, defined by his downfall and thereby somehow exonerated, exempt from the imperative to struggle against it. There are books that give the reader the sensation, sometimes rewarding, often maddening, of waiting for the other shoe to drop (Disgrace is an outstanding example). The Dog conveys a very different experience, an entirely maddening one, of waiting for the other shoe to be put on and laced up, so that the book can stretch its legs and develop some sort of gait, a feeling of movement. Self-enclosure is a legitimate starting point for a novel, but it can’t be any more than a starting point, just as comas in films aren’t medical case histories but opportunities for staging a new beginning. A coma is there for someone to wake up from.

The book offers little narrative enticements as it goes along, but they never develop beyond a certain point. The opening pages offer scuba diving and an underwater sighting of a mysterious local character known as ‘The Man from Atlantis’, but these promising elements are only the first of many to fizzle. Every twenty pages or so a new character is introduced, but not developed beyond a rudimentary point. It’s only in his office life that the narrator is under an obligation to interact, with a helpful bidoon called Ali and with Alain, Batros’s teenage son, who is undertaking an internship which he experiences more as an internment. Alain Batros is fat and under orders from his father not to be. There is a reward waiting for him if he falls below ninety kilos – a luxury car – and a regime of daily weighings to establish whether he is making progress towards this goal (he isn’t). These weighings are part of X.’s duties, but he delegates them to Ali. This is one of the few abstentions in the book to have a positive character, so that it feels like an actual action, an intervention taking the form of absence, since it works to lessen Alain’s humiliation.

The boy’s state of oppressed privilege is a long way from enviable. Still, it’s not X.’s job, as he says, to be ‘this kid’s overseer or Dutch uncle’. It’s not his job to lie awake at night (though the implication is that he does) ‘wondering what will become of him and how things could be made better for this large, soft child whose circumstances give one not the slightest basis for hoping against hope that somehow he will acquire the wherewithal to care and be cared for, which is surely the great purpose and basic meaning of growing up’ – forgetting his own shortfalls of the relevant wherewithal. Seeing Alain busy with a book of Sudoku puzzles, X. is impressed and encourages him, until he discovers that the boy is looking up the solutions at the back of the book. He shows tough love for Alain, not the sort of tough love that would require him to slim down so he can fit into an Alfa Romeo 1750 Spider Veloce (the masculine equivalent, perhaps, of a prom dress) but a gentler variety, manifested by physically removing the solution section of the book, forcing Alain to grapple on his own with the fraught arrays of interdependent digits. X.’s own grasp of Sudoku procedure seems shaky: all too characteristically, he regards it as of great importance to keep a tidy grid, making no provisional marks.

This is more or less the high point of his identification with Alain Batros, and his involvement in Ali’s destiny also has definite limits. In fact the closest thing to a relationship is the one he can’t choose not to have, with the Batros patriarch Georges, and the only scene in the book which crackles with a bit of energy is one on Georges’s yacht, the Giselle, moored off the coast of Turkey. Georges puts on a firework display of testosterone, taking a shower on deck (‘the female crew member trained a high-powered hose on him as though he were on fire’). He boasts about the quality of the crew, and X.’s reply shows some enthusiasm – ‘Yeah, they look like they’re really stoked’ – but obviously not enough, since Georges summons one of them and gives him murmured instructions. Three of the crew immediately dive off the boat, swim to shore, climb the rocks and grab a goat; they cut its throat then swim back with it. Everyone on deck applauds this set piece of outsourced virility. Georges has the animal’s liver brought to him on a plate, raw, and eats it, his only concession to civilisation being to squeeze lemon juice over it, bringing it (just) across the boundary between casual slaughter and meal. Good manners require that X. should eat a small piece, however little he wants to.

This is caricature, of course, but caricature can have vigour, a brusque confidence of line after so much grey cross-hatching. From a reader’s point of view it’s a relief to have dealings with a character who knows what he wants (as well as being sure of his ability to get it), and even manufactures additional wants at will to impress an unimportant visitor. Raw liver might actually taste pretty good after an overdose of tofu. Georges is missed as a character after his big scene, and the book would be much more enjoyable as a portrait of a crocodile from the point of view of one of the birds that peck its teeth clean, admitted to its mouth, that cave of corruption, with permission to carry out tasks of superficial hygiene but always aware that the roof can fall in at any moment, a roof with teeth.

Joseph O’Neill’s reputation rests on his 2008 novel Netherland, a performance so much more confident and inventively textured than The Dog as to seem the work of a different writer. There’s mention in Netherland, a book much concerned with cricket, of ‘that numinous state of efficiency we evoke with a single casual word, form’, but saying he’s off form in this new book hardly covers the case. It’s as if he has sent a substitute in to bat for him. There are beautiful sentences in The Dog, but they are governed by a strange, almost arithmetical rule. Up to about the five-line mark, they are generally well shaped, but if they go on any longer than that they lose any sense of making progress. This sentence, from late in the book, is at the upper limit compatible with control: ‘From the gate, one passes on a moving walkway through an unprecedented forest of silver-coloured pillars and then, by the paranormal merger of escalator and floor, one is delivered to the border-control stations, an archipelago of kiosks between which coasting border controllers, their all-white apparel copied in the sheen of the floor, make oneiric white shadows.’ The pleasure of this is almost immediately cancelled by the arrival of a sentence twice as long and soon losing not only the will to live but the right to be read. These are not long sentences, purring and humming, those magnificent oceangoing structures launched by James or Mann or Proust: they are sentences that have forgotten to stop. Anyone who has seen elderly, broken-backed dachshunds being walked in parks with rollerskates supporting their middles will get the picture, but there are no rollerskates here.

It may be that The Dog is a specialised sort of mid-life crisis narrative, specialised because this arch-committophobe hardly seems to have begun his life yet, but it’s a mistake to impose the same shape on the prose, actively reinforcing the perverse insistent dullness of the book – like painting the word ‘beige’ in beige on beige. It’s a perilous business to quote one of these long, sway-backed sentences, but this one at least shows some late-arriving flair:

I was no less animated and purposeful than if I’d been setting out to look for Red Rackham’s treasure; and, as I travelled through the nocturnal cities, it was as if an existential transfer or translation had taken effect and it was the case without counterfactuality that I was an aquanaut and the cabin of the Autobiography, dark except for the dashboard’s fire of needles and numerals, was that of a submersible passing between batholiths and brilliant upright reefs; and it was the equally real case, as the convoy turned east onto the E88 and quickened through the desert, that the moon gave the slip to a blundering constabulary of moon-brightened clouds.

That bright final burst of analogy is like a blazing torch flourished at the back of a stumbling procession, casting light where it is needed least.