This is an expanded review. Patreon supporters got my first impressions last week! You can also get early access to most posts (and also be a major part of supporting my work!) by joining the Patreon.
I finished reading Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis for the category of ‘a book with an animal or inanimate object as a point of view narrator.’
I did not love it.
I love dogs, and I found the story bleak and intensely focused on dominance as the core defining concern of dogs. There were so many references to dominance behaviours and no references to calming signals or the more complex social actions of dogs. I found this frustrating – as if the author read Cesar Millan and The Monks of New Skete and skipped all the amazing animal behaviourists who could have added nuance and depth to the canine behaviour piece.
This focus on dominance irked me for multiple reasons, and I’ll try to explain them.
First, it demonstrated an unsophisticated and outdated understanding of dog behaviour. For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in Your Best Friend by Patricia McConnell was published over ten years ago, and dominance theory itself (the idea of the “alpha” among dogs, based on the “alpha” among wolves) is an unfunny joke based on poorly collected and understood data and consistently debunked over the last many decades. (Note: I am not saying there are no social hierarchies among dogs. There are, and they’ve been studied. But they are not nearly as simple or as harsh as this book presents.)
The book felt like Lord of the Flies, an uncomfortable and nihilistic read that seems to offer a sharp critique of humanity by imagining the worst of what we’re capable of, but that actually misses the mark by assuming that the worst we’re capable of is our default position.
That the dogs would so quickly jump to killing each other made me raise an eyebrow – both dogs and humans are aggressively social. (And particularly, we are social with each other.)
And the weird gender politics, males somehow inevitably dominant, just seemed irritatingly predictable. The dogs’ assumptions about human hierarchies made this particularly clear, and the lack of complexity or nuance in their understanding of hierarchies was sometimes meant to be humorous but actually came across as yet more frustratingly simplistic writing.
Dominance, theorized in this simplistic and linear way, is easy. We have so many templates for this, including Jordan Peterson’s patently ridiculous lobster theory. But, although social dominance absolutely does exist (in both dogs and humans), it is not so simple or so linear. Rather, it is complex, contextual, and conditional. Jordan Peterson is, in fact, a big part of the reason this book rubbed me so much the wrong way. Because although I could appreciate Alexis’ use of language and the depth of character that he gave some of the dogs, I could see the framework underneath the story – a naturalizing of dominance and rigid social hierarchies – and this framework is one that cooperates all too easily with existing systems of injustice and oppression. It’s the whole foundation of the alt-right’s assertion that men, and straights, and white folks, are inherently meant to be at the top of the social hierarchy. Barf. (And I recognize that this book was published before Jordan Peterson rose to prominence, but I read the book in 2019’s context, despite its 2015 origin.)
The dogs deserve better. I wanted to see better for them – to see a more compassionate representation of who dogs are, and who we are when we are reflected in dogs. I wanted a story in which the worst of us is not the core or the default, in which our drive towards dominance and hierarchy and violence is recognized as one part of our nature, not the foundation of our nature.
I wanted something hopeful, possible.
Instead, the book seemed endlessly obsessed with dominance and hierarchy and violence. The few dogs who did show prosocial behaviours were quickly killed off, and this seemed like such a mistake. Dogs are more than this, and I’m not simply anthropomorphizing when I say this. Dogs have complex social hierarchies, and also demonstrate prosocial and even empathetic behaviours. We, humans, are also more than this.
Having said all that, there were also really lovely moments. The relationship between Majnoun and Nira (when not being made weird by Majnoun’s assumptions of hierarchy in her relationship with her husband), and between Prince and his new language, moved me.
But overall, I didn’t love it at all. I’m glad it was short, and I didn’t find it offensive, but I didn’t love it.
I am 4/24 into the challenge! I feel quite proud of myself.
You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!
My review of Binti for “a book by a woman and/or an author of colour set in or about space.”
My review of When They Call You A Terrorist for “a book of nonviolent true crime.”
My review of Washington Black for “a book by a woman and/or author of colour that won a literary award in 2018.”