The Lost Dog, Michelle de Kretser, Little Brown & Co.
Readers may be forgiven if the title of de Kretser’s third novel fails to captivate. Not only does The Lost Dog continue her preference for curiously static object names (following The Rose Grower and The Hamilton Case) that do an injustice to the complexity of her themes, but it seems to evoke a little too readily a growing genre of literature whose popularity would seem close to the saturation point. Ever since John Grogan’s Marley & Me proved a surprise bestseller in 2005, stories of man’s best friend, whether fiction or memoir, have been wet-nosing their way onto bookshelves like insistent Shih Tzus. Most recently, Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain has taken the trend to its logical extreme by employing a pooch protagonist as narrator. While that is one way to stand out from the litter, the preponderance of literary terriers and retrievers is beginning to bring to mind the unfortunate image of a publishing puppy mill.
Curiously, though, de Kretser’s book can’t really be lumped in with these other works, for the search for the titular stray isn’t the overarching narrative concern. Instead, the real lost dog here is the owner, an Indian-Australian Henry James scholar named Tom Loxley, whose week long search for his pet prompts an inquiry into the nature of modernity, reality, and identity. One might go so far as to say that James is more central to the novel than the dog, which is never even named (unlike Tom’s book: Meddlesome Ghosts: Henry James and the Uncanny). What de Kretser hopes to produce here is a psychological study of perception on the order of “The Altar of the Dead,” “The Jolly Corner,” and “The Beast in the Jungle.” Whether she succeeds depends on the individual reader’s tolerance for stylistic abstraction and the relatively disassembled state in which she presents her plot pieces.
The lack of assembly becomes pronounced a third of the way into the narrative when de Kretser introduces what should be the novel’s unifying focus——we learn the mysterious background of the artist Nelly Zhang, whose house Tom rents in order to complete his scholarly study of the Master (and it is while on a walk near the bordering bush that Loxley’s dog runs away). A decade and a half earlier, Nelly’s husband, Felix Atwood, vanished without a trace while being investigated for shady finances. Nelly subsequently became a tabloid suspect in his disappearance, especially after she seemed to stoke the mystery with a series of paintings ridiculed in the press as “Nelly’s Nasties.” De Kretser even excerpts one disapproving review from an “eminent critic”: “Zhang (re)presents the symbolic violence of authoritarian modes in images as ambiguous as they are oppressive. Nowhere in these paintings is the phallocentric will-to-power explicitly critiqued. The refusal to engage in direct visual discourse is ultimately elitist and unsatisfying.”
Suffice it to say, it’s hard to build suspense when one is throwing around words like “phallocentric”—even when parodying them. But, Nelly isn’t Loxley’s only concern. The declining health of his aged mother, Iris, also preoccupies him. One of the most dramatically satisfying interludes occurs when Tom must clean the bathroom after his mother loses control of her bowels; the humiliating episode confirms for the protagonist the indignity of corporeality. De Kretser also goes into the Loxley family background, giving the storyline a colonialist spin by exploring how his father, Arthur, met Iris in India after WWII and how her desire for bourgeois prosperity landed them in Australia. Just how issues of immigration and identity relate to both Nelly’s mystery and Tom’s lost dog remain frustratingly unclear, however. At times, it feels as if there are three novels in one unspooling as the transitions between them are abrupt and often stagy. “But it might have begun long, long before that evening in Carson Posner’s gallery,” begins the introduction to the Arthur Loxley flashback, “It might have been historical.” One wishes a brave editor to have written, “Or it might just be a digression.”
In addition to structural problems, there are moments when the stylistic compression required to stitch these disparate plotlines together results in some downright dubious sentences. Describing the reaction to “Nelly’s Nasties,” de Kretser writes, “A rock star who collected art was quoted as saying he was struggling with aesthetic and ethical objections to Nelly’s work.” Perhaps Australian rock stars are that articulate—Colin Hay, maybe?—but the line strikes me instead as an instance of the authorial voice intruding into the narration out of sheer haste. De Kretser’s occasional reversion to such academic prose is curious given a late set piece in which Tom attends a hiring-committee meeting at his university—a scene that is needlessly populated with pompous tweed-and-political correctness types. At this point in literary history, there would seem little real value in parodying the professoriate; not only has it been done to death by David Lodge et al, but also it adds nothing to the story. Additionally, if one wants to mock the hallowed groves of academe, one shouldn’t sound like a denizen.
Despite these flaws, The Lost Dog still has much to recommend. For starters, the characters are intriguing and sustain interest through the plot’s patchwork discontinuities. Tom Loxley is the most rewarding of de Kretser’s overt Jamesian analogues; emotionally detached before the dog’s disappearance, he struggles in the classic mould of John Marcher and Spencer Brydon to come to grips with lost opportunities and disappointments and to balance his attraction to Nelly against the mystery of her missing husband. Nelly, too, is a thoroughly enjoyable creation, at once firmly committed to her aesthetics and yet winkingly aware of the pretension that seems inseparable from art. The putative antagonist, Carson Posner, is every bit as arch and manipulative as a Gilbert Osmond type should be, and several minor characters add local Aussie color. De Kretser’s eye for setting is likewise exquisite; aside from atmospheric evocations of paddocks and eucalyptus, she invests a great deal of effort in wringing poetry out of landscape, which pays off handsomely in conveying Tom’s ephemeral disconnection. Indeed, the chimerical is far more affecting here than in the constant references to James’s meddlesome ghosts.
Again, the overall success of The Lost Dog depends on the reader’s tolerance for its loose, baggy form. The Anglo literary establishment certainly hasn’t held its unshapely development against de Kretser. Despite the general consensus that the novel represents a bit of a retreat in ambition after The Hamilton Case, The Lost Dog recently made the longlist for the 2008 Man Booker Prize (it was also named Book of the Year in Australia). While it is unlikely to win top honors, the recognition is certainly deserved for de Kretser, if not necessarily for this particular work.
Kirk Curnutt is the author the novel Breathing Out the Ghost. His next work, Dixie Noir, will be published in November 2009.