DOGS THESE DAYS are becoming major celebrities. J. R. Carpenter, in her first novel Words the Dog Knows, has tuned into this phenomenon with uncanny instinct, selecting Isaac as her canine protagonist. We might wish she had chosen to have Isaac narrate this tail-wagging tale, rather than Simone, Isaac’s owner. For while dog-lovers everywhere will empathize with Simone’s story, the hardcore fiction reader eyeing this playful title expects serious play — even satire — and therefore may find themselves sadly disappointed, even if they are 100% charmed by Isaac and his owner. This narrative lacks bite.
Nonetheless, as is apparent by this vivid description of an open-air market in Rome, Carpenter shines in places, demonstrating her substantive talent:
Old women shopped there, stout housewives haggled there, with vendors who ignored them studiously, shouting instead, musical obscenities over the shoppers’ heads, to the gods, to the other vendors and to the gypsy children who buzzed around the edges of everything, fast and hungry as flies. (p. 125)
We wish for more of this brilliant prose, but most of the novel opts for a casual, conversational tone, and is therefore inconsistent: we are fed hotdogs when we crave vindaloo, doggonnit. Novels are usually constructed around some event or situation that exudes tension. There is but one obstruction in Words the Dog Knows: a black rubber ball. Any tension in this story only occurs near the end of the book, when Isaac becomes ill. Words is clever, sweet, gentle, linear, lithe, playful, emotionally fragile, oddly sombre, and yet largely unencumbered by the trappings of plot usually found in fiction, particularly as it arises between principle characters. Carpenter may be experimenting with elements of the picaresque novel, or a direct address to the reader, bloggiste style. I, for one, found that reading her book made me seriously question what makes a novel a novel.
One moment at which Carpenter’s narrative might have been taken a challenging direction is when the narrator says:
My father was so mad he stopped talking to me. I didn’t notice at first. The difference between him speaking to me and not speaking to me was that negligible. (p.25)
Here is one of the rare glimmers of emotional struggle in the narrator Simone: a faint but significant glimmer. But she never goes here again: the parents remain unfathomable caricatures, largely mocked. Simone’s emotional response to her distant, difficult parents would have been well worth exploring, and, in a novel, would have introduced desperately needed tension.
Carpenter has all she needs for a sequel to Words the Dog Knows: Isaac could have random thoughts; insights about humans, narration, and all manner of satire may follow. The plot threads are all there. If Carpenter begins to link her plots, develop her characters, and fearlessly manipulate her material, her next book will explore much more than a dog’s intestinal tract and his limited human vocabulary. She may well launch a biting Montreal legacy.
Kate Orland Bere is busy, when not walking her canine friend, writing a compilation of short stories, entitled Shameless. Check out her blog: www.walkingwords.com