Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

When Joshilyn gave me this book, a long time ago, she said that it was really two books mashed into one, and she felt sure I'd like one of them. I know I liked the second half much more than the first. So much did I not like the first half that I actually put the book down for more than a year. I liked the present sections more than the past, the dog sections more than the human. Which were the two books? I'm not sure. I picked it up again because I finally succumbed to the hook, and had to know how it ended.

In The Dogs of Babel, linguist professor and first person narrator Paul Iverson tries to teach his dog, Lorelei, to talk. He wants to figure out what happened on the day that his wife, Lexy, fell or jumped out of their backyard apple tree and died on the ground. Even though the book hovers on the edge of magical realism, including some invented facts and history of talking dogs, and a secret society that mutilates dogs to get them to talk, it never fully dives into that world, and Paul Iverson's dog never gives him an account, in English, of Lexy's last day. The dog-talking aspect of the book, much emphasized in the press surrounding it, was actually just a way to show Paul's character, how derailed he had become after Lexy's death. The dog-talking aspect, though, was very interesting while it lasted.

What turned me off, in the first half of the book, was how Lexy was built as a character. A beloved character is one of those Drew Barrymore characters, who is so beautiful, so funny, so mad, so inspired, such a free thinker, such a life-liver, she can take you for a ride past death's condo and leave you panting for more. No flaws. All her flaws are charming. She's a little crazy but also very, very wise. Beloved characters frequently die or kill themselves, but not before they've had a chance to teach someone how to live. Someone uptight and bored like a linguistics professor. The problem with the beloved character is that it's excrutiatingly hard to portray such a character on the page, without sounding gushing and ridiculous. You have a character with a dangerous glow around them -- how do you show that?

Parkhurst's answer was to put the book in first person, so the husband Paul speaks all these words of love, and at the beginning of the book, when his grief is still very fresh, it is pure love. Toward the end, we start to see some of Lexy's darker side -- her depression, anger, irrational behavior, etc. She's an artist -- she makes masks. So in the second half of the book, Lexy loses some of her glow, and becomes more interesting, more layered, more true. I wonder how the book would have read if the entire thing had been in third person. Would it have been better to get a more true picture from the beginning, of both Lexy and Paul, or was the gradual shift toward a real portrayal more effective at illuminating their relationship? Definitely in third person, the parts in the past that I didn't like (the glowy, gauzy, beloved parts) would have been less emphasized and the dog-talking, obsessive, philosophical parts (which I liked) would have been more important. I wanted more secret clues, more rearranging letters, more ideas about communicating and what is truth.

The book switches back from the present time, when Paul is grieving and working with the dog, to the past, to tell about their relationship when she was alive. The storyline in the past starts on the day they met and eventually, by the end of the book, catches up with the present. There are twists, I won't reveal them, but I will say that Lexy had profound doubts about her ability to raise children properly, without ruining them. She worried she would not be a good mother because of her personality -- the rages, the neuroses, the depression, etc.

I have mixed feelings about this because I can really relate -- when I was pregnant with my first child I had no idea how I was going to transform myself into something resembling a mother. I was convinced my child would rather be raised by someone who knew how to bake from scratch, who read romance novels at the beach, who wore matching cardigan sets. I think we all have those worries. Reading this book made me deeply glad that I went ahead and subjected the children to my eccentric personality, that I was able to bend my personality enough to meet the needs of my children, that we all find each other interesting -- I felt very grateful for the life I have, with my husband and kids.

At one point in the book, Paul Iverson says he shouldn't have to apologize for wanting what everyone wants -- a family. He wanted a baby and she did not. It's funny, looking at Lexy's life -- her basement workshop, her open days of freedom, hours to work on her art, no one asking for peanut butter or needing to be taken to ballet -- it's easy to feel a little envious. Every writer/artist/musician/whatever who is also a parent knows what I am talking about. Sometimes you think, what would I be doing right now, if I was alone right now? And I suppose for most of us, the answer is this: Wishing I had my kids to pester me.

Maybe the choice to put the novel in first person was correct, because as it is now, the husband is really the main character. Maybe any other method would put Lexy right into the spotlight, like every other book about a beautiful madwoman. Maybe this is Wuthering Heights from the point of view of Edgar Linton... focusing on a character who typically falls into the background. The one who appreciates the wild horse but can't really handle it. The one who lives to tell the tale.

Visit The Dogs of Babel on


  1. The two books were
    1) the vision of beautiful Drew-Barrymore-esque love decays into truth book
    2) make the dog say what is truth via hidden torturing society of surgical madmen book.

    I TRULY liked book one and ADORED book two with mad passion.
    I think Paul was the rigth narrator for the book for all the smart good reasons you say at the end.

    YOU KNOW her SECOND book is very much like watchign THE AMAZING RACE. You should read it, even though the hardback cover was terrible and made it not sell to anyone but me, and the paperback cover, which is making it sell, does not capture it;s smartness.

    Caroline Parkhurst writes the exact books I want to read, I find. i wish she woudl do it faster.


  2. Joshilyn and Lydia- I just this morning finished Carolyn Parkhurst's LOST AND FOUND. It is about a reality show and I think it might have been specifically written for Lydia (or maybe Lydia is secretly Carolyn Parkhurst?). It was a quick read and I was left wanting but it is still very worth reading. There was so MUCH more I wanted to know about each contestant in the show. I second the THRIRTEENTH TALE recommendation- especially fantastic on audio!

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