(Photo: Amy Attas)
The dogs gain human intelligence and soon escape the veterinary clinic. Their cages weren’t locked – just bolted – because up until five minutes before, these fifteen dogs were just dogs. Now they are dogs with the intelligence of humans, and they quickly figure out how doors work, and streets, and traffic lights. The central question of this novel has been posed: is it possible for any creature to be happy once it has the sentience of a human?
I have often wondered this, whilst stroking a cat dosing in the sun, or watching a dog sprint in circles around an open field. Why can’t I be happy like they are? Why can’t I be at peace?
Soon after the dogs escape, they find their way to Toronto’s High Park. A Neapolitan Mastiff, the pack’s natural leader (pre-sentience, given his size) exhorts the others to hunt, to run through the field in search of rats and squirrels. A smaller dog asks, “Why?”
Seven pages in, and I was fully committed. I’d resisted Fifteen Dogs because I thought it was long and opaque, in the style of a Greek epic. It’s only 170 pages. I assumed fifteen characters was too many – but André Alexis handles them deftly, crafting scenes with just a few characters, and holding the story of individual dogs long enough to satisfy readers’ cravings. I thought stories of Greek gods were drawn-out and moral-driven – again with a cast of characters too big to keep track of, and so much reality-bending that the playing field seemed unfair. But the bet, placed between Hermes and Apollo, on whether a creature could be happy if given human intelligence, does not take up much space in the narrative. This is not a story of Greek mythology. It’s a thought experiment that helps us ponder the human experience from a fresh perspective. It’s an allegory like Animal Farm or Watership Down, entertaining as a children’s story but exposing so much more.
I read this book quickly, and since cracking the spine it has been hard to look at dogs without wondering. Does he like his master? Does she mind that leash? Would he stop eating the cat’s poop if he knew his master didn’t like it? It took me a while to comprehend the practicalities of human intelligence in dogs. The way Alexis writes it, the dogs remain dogs, enjoying dog joys and believing dog truths (like pack mentality and hierarchy). This helps us ponder the existential questions with less emotion – we’re not comparing the happiness of rich humans and poor humans, of Canadians versus Kenyans, of men versus women. We can consider the human condition as a whole, as observed from outside.
Finally, on the skill of the writer. This is not just a clever concept for a book – it is concisely conveyed with a thoughtful use of language. Dog dialogue is noticeably different from human/god dialogue, like a human speaking English as a second language uses simple words in creative ways. Descriptive details are doled out as needed, in compact nuggets. Philosophical insights are similarly spare – clear, without limiting the ruminations of the reader. I can’t say how this writing would fare in André Alexis’s other novels – many have been similarly well-received, and some play with philosophical questions by breaking with the “real world”, as he’s done in Fifteen Dogs. None are allegories. But my god, after reading Fifteen Dogs, I’d say his other books are worth a shot.