Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

Fiction — print. Coach House Books, 2015. 171 pgs. Library copy.

In this imaginative, little book, the Greek gods Hermes and Apollo visit a dog kennel near Toronto and gift the fifteen dogs there with consciousness. The two have wagered a bet over whether or not intelligence — or, maybe more appropriately,  awareness of one’s place in society outside the insular pack — makes humans happier than other beings. If one of these fifteen dogs gifted with human intelligence dies happy, then Hermes wins a year of servitude from Apollo.

The fifteen dogs range in age, size, and breed — labradoodle, Great Dane, beagle, mutt, Schnauzer — and each responds to the gift of human intelligence in different ways. Some return to their owners and try to reconcile their new-found awareness with owners who talk to them like idiots, insist on placing them on a leash, and try to control their behavior through the promise of treats. Majnoun, a black Poodle who is also referred to as “Lord Jim” or “Jim”, ends up in the care of a woman named Nira, who eventually gets over shock that Majnoun can converse with her in English and comes to develop a deep bond with the dog that her partner, Miguel, does not respect. He prefers Benji, another conscious dog who is still willing to perform the tricks Majnoun and Nira both believe are beneath Majnoun.

Others like Athena, Bella, Prince, and Dougie spurn their former human companions and form their own pack roaming the streets of Toronto and trying to evade humans. The pack begins to develop bonds between the animals beyond the collective need for food; Bella the Great Dane recognizes Athena, a teacup Poodle, is unable to keep up with the pack and offers her rides on her back. This bond infuriates other members of the pack aggravating an already fragile pecking order within the pack and attracts the attention of Toronto’s residents, who are unaccustomed to seeing dogs act in such a way.

I grew up with a dog — a lab and then a Newfoundland — that was often attributed with a level of consciousness they may or may not have possessed. Alexis manages to blend the dog behaviors owners would be familiar with — greeting each other by sniffing behinds, rolling over to expose genitals as a way to establish dominance within the pack — with human behaviors — learning another language, deep and meaningful expressions of love beyond physical affection, etc. I could imagine my own pets, especially the Newfoundland, behaving in such ways, and it was fun to contemplate which path they would take. (I’d like to think the Newfoundland would have stayed with us, but yet another admonishment that she couldn’t go past the baby gate upstairs, save us from drowning while swimming. or help herself to the cookies on the counter might have been the final insult to her intelligence to push her out the door.)

For all the fun questions this imaginative tale proposed about my own pets, Alexis’ novel is a deeply philosophical tale most closely related to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which explores how societies are formed and the depths of human compassion after a group of young boys are stranded on an island without adult supervision. The philosophical questions raised in this novel are echoes of those found in Golding’s novel and, as with Lord of the Flies, I found myself sitting in quiet contemplation after turning the final page trying to reconcile these microcosms of aggression with the events of human society today. Is society doomed to turn violent, to reject expressions of love and compassion? Are we doomed to die unhappy because we are aware of the loves and lives we’ve lost and are capable of feeling futile in the face of dominant codes of conduct within society?

Hermes and Apollo get their answer with the conclusion of their bet, but I’m not sure I did. And books that leave me conflicted and unsettled are the best kind of reads, I think. The Giller Prize certainly agrees with me as Alexis won the 2015 prize this past November for Fifteen Dogs.

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