Joseph O’Neill’s justly-praised first novel, Netherland (2008), related the story of a European (a Dutchman) living in New York City after 9/11, who assimilated into American life by joining a cricket team, composed of men of disparate ethnicities and nationalities. The novel won numerous awards and—because of its ethical overtones—was compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The characters no doubt reflect the writer’s own mixed ethnicities: Irish and Turkish, as well as his childhood experiences of growing up in several countries. Netherland was followed by three other works: a second novel, a collection of short stories, and a work of non-fiction. To the list we now add a third novel, The Dog, reflecting the author’s continued interest with expatriates and quasi-ethical issues.
Most of The Dog is set in Dubai, a highbred culture if there ever was one, with occasional scenes in the United States, reflecting the unnamed main character’s earlier years as a lawyer in New York, and his lengthy relationship with a woman, named Jenn. Their relationship ends abruptly when she decides that she wants a baby and the narrator responds that he would rather have a dog, leading to his realization that during the years he has lived with Jenn, he played the role of the dog and she (the more dominant figure) the master. They both worked at the same legal firm, but only Jenn was made partner.
In the aftermath of the failed relationship, the narrator (who has numerous names, though they are all the ones that other people have called him or confused him with) takes a job in Dubai, after running into an old college friend, Edmond (Eddie) Batros, scion of a fabulously wealthy Lebanese family. Eddie hires his old friend to be the Treasurer of the Bathos Foundation; his duties are mostly philanthropic, for which he is paid a fabulous sum of money and given numerous other perks. There’s an early warning that O’Neill’s protagonist doesn’t quite understand, given its later ramifications in the plot. The elder Batros says to him after meeting him for the first time, “You have one function. You know what this function is? It is to make sure nobody steals. This is your function.”
His work is boring and repetitive with little possibility of creativity; worse, he rarely has any contact with anyone in the Batros family, including Eddie, his old friend. So what does he do? He looks at porno on the Internet, masturbates, becoming “an ultramarathoner of masturbation” as he calls it, engages expensive prostitutes, but mostly nothing. Or nothing of significance. As far as literary comparisons go, I call him a second Bartleby. He’s passive (and that is a major problem with the story), voyeuristic, self-indulgent.
Too bad, because The Dog is full of clever observations of Dubai’s johnnie-come-lately attempts to catch up with Western capitalism. There are gentle witticisms throughout the story, such as his observation on one of the few occasions when he is in the presence of one of the Batros big shots, “I am very silent, very silent. I am William the Silent and Harpo Marx and Justice Thomas.”
There is also a brief but hilarious scene, a flashback, when he is still living with Jenn and he has agreed to have his sperm count checked at a local clinic in order to determine if he is the reason why Jenn can’t get pregnant. Any male who has ever suffered this indignity will understand: sitting in the waiting room, waiting for his name to be called, entering the cubical where he is expected to leave his sperm, followed by the total inability to get an erection: “There was a surprisingly cheap armchair—maybe I’d been half-expecting some kind of special custom-made jack-off lounger—a few worn pornographic magazines, and a tiny piece-of-shit non-flat-screen TV that must have been about twenty years old. Onan himself would have found the setup a challenge.” And the punch-line from Jenn, whom he has lived with for years and never married—after she realizes that she is not going to get pregnant, “You’ve murdered my marriage.”
But that’s about it. About as inspiring as the assignment the narrator gives to one of the Batros children (a hostile, fifteen-year-old overweight boy) he is asked to mentor one summer. Write an essay called “My Summer Holiday.” Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog is no more inspiring. There’s no fun in reading the latest work by a writer you’ve always admired only to discover that he’s produced a dog.
Nor is it much better to turn to Paulo Coelho’s Adultery. I was tempted because the Brazilian-born writer has a track record few can equal. His books (translated into eighty languages) have sold 165 million copies, earing him—according to a feature article in The Wall Street Journal—$535 million. Not bad, especially for a writer I’ve never even heard about, much less read. So why not give his latest novel, Adultery (as catchy a title as I’ve ever encountered) a try? Coelho’s big on social media, with millions of fans—all, apparently, looking for permission to cheat on their spouses, which Adultery is about. Go ahead, why worry about the ramifications? And, if those consequences are as slight as they are in Coelho’s new novel, why wait another day?
So that’s the story.
And here are the details: A woman in her early thirties, known only by her first name, Linda, is bored with her job, her husband, her life. She’s a successful journalist; her husband loves her and has not been unfaithful; they have two children. They all live in Geneva, where Coelho spends much of his time each year. In short, she lives well and is the envy of many of her friends. But, she’s a bit depressed. Interviewing a writer (Paulo Coelho or at least his alter ego?) who tells her that life must be lived passionately, she realizes that she never takes any risks. The writer makes it obvious that that isn’t really living; ergo, have an affair with someone. A day or so later when she interviews a politician whom she had a crush on when they were together in secondary school, she impulsively kneels down, unzips his fly and gives him a quick blow job (after the interview, of course).
Thus begins—after tortuous delays—her adultery with her former boyfriend, now supposedly as happily married as Linda is. What’s mildly interesting here is that it’s Linda who is the aggressor and not Jacob, her lover, though soon he’s chasing her as much as she is him. It doesn’t take long before she’s uttering the classic justifications of all first-time adulterers, “The only person I am a danger to is myself,” i.e., I’m not hurting anyone, though soon she realizes that she wants to break up Jacob’s relationship with his wife. She wants him all for herself.
Linda seeks the help of a couple of shrinks, justifying her actions by musing, “I just wanted to get out of a rut, find a better reason for my boring, unchallenging life.” In the one moment of levity in the novel, she seeks out the help of a Cuban shaman (Coelho’s second disguised appearance in the novel?) He’s not particularly helpful either, though he provokes a flood of thoughts that read as if they’re from some cheap self-help book, pop psychology for those who need simple answers to their questions or, more likely, justifications for their actions: “It’s loneliness. Even though I’m surrounded by loved ones who care about me and want only the best, it’s possible they try to help only because they feel the same thing—loneliness—and why, in a gesture of solidarity, you’ll find the phrase ‘I am useful, even if alone’ carved in stone.”
So the novel might just as easily be called Loneliness or Boredom or Mid-Life Crisis.
Adultery is chockablock with other profundities: “Men cheat because it’s in their genetic code. A woman does it because she doesn’t have enough dignity; in addition to handing over her body, she always ends up handing over a bit of her heart.”
“But deep down, what happened is very simple: I went to bed with a man because I was dying to do it. Nothing more. No intellectual or psychological justification. I wanted to screw. End of story.”
“What kills a relationship between two people is precisely the lack of challenge, the feeling that nothing is new anymore. We need to continue to be a surprise for each other.”
Or my favorite line in the entire novel: “Love, the only thing that will remain when the human race has died out.” Now that’s quite fascinating. Perhaps Coelho should write a novel called Love among the Cockroaches.
Linda’s husband—the good man that he is—forgives her and everything turns out all right. What Adultery suggests, then, is that there’s no reason not to cheat on your spouse, commit adultery. In Paulo Coelho’s world there are apparently no consequences.
No wonder he has so many readers. Including barking dogs.
Joseph O’Neill: The Dog
Pantheon, 256 pp., $25.95
Paul Coelho: Adultery
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Zoë Perry
Knopf, 257 pp., $24.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.