I’ve got that feeling again, the one I had about There Is No Dog, that sense of bafflement because the book I read may not be the book others read. This is a 3-star book* that also made it into the New York Times. It’s ambitious for sure, but I’m beginning to think I only notice ambitious writing when it doesn’t quite pull itself off. It’s original, except that somehow it reminds me almost unbearably of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking Trilogy, all inverted.
(I should note that most of the time I try really hard not to read the actual text of the reviews in journals or on other blogs until AFTER I’ve done my writeup, to try to avoid being influenced by others. As soon as I press publish, I’ll be off to read away.)
I am hoping that a conversation will illuminate this novel, so I’ll start by laying my cards on the table.
My first problem is that I found this an unbearably slow read, which I think is a result of the narrative voice. In fact, like so many first person narrative novels, the voice is so critical that it’s hard to see past it, so let’s start there.
The dialect didn’t feel natural, which is not to say it never worked, but that it had the effect sometimes of making me feel like I was translating as much as reading. The scene where he first meets Mary? Had to read that three times to really get a sense of the place and to understand where the body was in relation to the kids. Reading Willo’s voice was exhausting. Trying to parse for the meaning given his half feral way of looking at the world was sometimes difficult. He’s only half human, really. The images of him in his cave are powerful, and unsettling, but they don’t let the reader get close to him. He is too much like the wild dog he thinks he is.
Willo’s peculiar lens on the world also makes the world impenetrable. Why is the government so afraid of the people living outside the cities? It doesn’t make any sense to have to have this sort of totalitarian, standard dystopic government in this context. Or maybe it does, but since most of our information comes from Willo, and he certainly doesn’t get it, the reader can’t access the necessary information to buy the world. We do get more of a sense as the world goes on, through Mary and Jacob, through Dorothy and Patrick (both in flashbacks and when we meet him again), but it’s hard to parse it all together into a seamless whole.
And let’s talk about Patrick. Willo’s memories have more Patrick than anyone else, although he thinks about Magda and Alice a lot too (both characters I wish we had a chance to meet). I knew there was something more, and I was waiting for it, so when he reappeared it was too neat, because the foreshadowing had seemed so obvious.
But here’s what I find myself wondering: How much of the reader response to this book is based on the emotional engagement with Willo, whuch by extension means the willingness to buy his voice? I as reader found his voice difficult, which made this a halting, difficult read, which gave me ample time to notice and pick at flaws, some of which might have been another reader’s charms (is the Patrick thing as obvious if you aren’t reading this in fits and starts or forcing yourself not to skim because you are having trouble with the voice? Memories of Patrick stand out of the narrative because we hear Patrick’s voice in them, which is perfectly comprehensible and stands in stark contrast to Willo’s voice.) Is this a book like The White Darkness, where it’s hard to read but a RealCommittee member who pushes harder on the biases and engagement factor finds it’s quietly brilliant?
(Also, this is a book that has me thinking about package. The font is an uncommon one in novels. It’s sans serif, with very rounded letters. It didn’t work for me; the same voice in a more traditional font might have made a significant difference to my reading of this book. The choice here left me wondering about the designer’s process and what the impact of the visual should be. I realize this is something many (most?) readers might not consciously notice, but I firmly believe that it has an effect regardless. On the other hand, the cover is fantastic, and the repeat of the image as section breaks is lovely design; the quoted material at the start of the sections I found distracting and again drew attention to things that maybe aren’t the things the reader should be noting. I would have, as a reader, loved loved loved to see excerpts from John Blovyn’s book, given its importance to the plot and within the world. That first hand contact with the artifact that drives the entire narrative would make immediate sense as a reader; passages I needed to decode in a book that already wasn’t fully holding me were another distancing measure.
But again, one man’s trash, another man’s treasure?)
I’m not going to reread this one unless it makes it into our shortlist for mock voting, which in turn is going to be dependent on what others have to say about it. So have at it. (Assuming you’ve read it? I think we’ll run a contenders reading poll in the next week or so, just to see where folks generally stand, given the much bigger pile this year.)
Anyway, yeah. If you loved this one, please chime in, and try to pick apart that connection between emotional connection and critical response with me. If you didn’t, chime in anyway!