In Saul Bellow's Herzog, the eponymous main character expresses his borderline lunacy by writing letters to everyone, including the IRS. The narrator of Joseph O'Neill's fourth novel, The Dog, expresses his unease by mentally composing emails, replete with emoticons and nested parentheses.
The narrator (hereafter "the dog") washes up in Dubai. Taking solace in pornography and Russian prostitutes, he broods on a nasty breakup with a real and respectable woman, yet he is hypersensitive to the gender wars. He uses the title "Mrs." once, followed by a profuse rationale. He is also hypersensitive to the virtual slave labor making Dubai possible and to his ex-girlfriend's closing arguments.
O'Neill begs comparison with other writers: Geoff Dyer for the genteel sourness, or Richard Ford for the heroic elevation of mediocrity to grandeur. He is as exhilarating as Bellow, as dark and provocative as Houellebecq, as hedonistic as Dyer and as touching as Ford. But O'Neill is funnier.
The Dog is about a man adrift in a "statelet" that's a mirage. It's about the increasing impossibility of real connection in our connected world, about expiation and escapism and exile. It shows the world as it is.
If O'Neill intends to show that this world is unsustainable, Dubai is the ideal setting, a sea of shifting sand atop a sea of fossil fuels, an air-conditioned panopticon where the dog almost gets jailed for errant Web surfing. Joseph Conrad compared humanity to "travelers in a garish, unrestful hotel." Dubai's "undeclared mission," writes O'Neill, "is to make itself indistinguishable from its airport."
Yet the dog loves his utopian dystopia. Grungy, crumbling New York depresses him. Compared to Dubai's Burj Khalifa, New York's Freedom Tower seemed "dumb—a meathead tower. It's not even that tall." But to the U.S. Constitution he gives mad props.
Herzog stopped writing letters, and the dog likewise seems to quiet down. This, of course, is what writing is often for. In this extraordinary novel, O'Neill has extended the boundaries of what writing can do, even (and perhaps especially) in this digital age.