The Dogs of Babel
By Carolyn Parkhurst
(Little, Brown and Co.,
264 pp., $13.95)
The author will read from her novel at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on July 13
at 6 p.m.
Near the end of Carolyn Parkhurst's novel The Dogs of Babel, the narrator Paul, still grieving the death-by-fallingor death-by-leapingof his wife Lexy, says: "This is where we'll stop, with Lexy still in midair. A freeze-frame, a cinematic measure that keeps her from ever hitting the ground. Look at her, floating in the autumn sun, her hair blown upward by the force of the wind. Her arms are stretched wide, and her blouse billows out softly as it catches the air beneath it. She's not looking down at the ground rushing toward her; she's looking up at the sky. But her head is turned slightly away from us, and that's what I keep coming back to. No matter how many times I look, I cannot see her face."
On display in these few sentences are two of Parkhurst's strongest literary gifts: memorable images and an authentic voice. The floating yet static picture of Lexy that Paul conjures here is not only a lovely vision, it also does more to explain Paul's understanding of his wife than any amount of dialogue or description. With its mixture of declaration, demand and observation, and especially in its admission that Paul is unable to see his wife's face even in his self-manufactured visions, the passage deftly captures the narrator's essence.
But something else is on display, too, in this passage, something literary purists might label almost sinister. With Parkhurst offering up her image as a "freeze-frame, a cinematic measure," she alerts the reader to the potential of experiencing a movie version of Paul and Lexy's tragic love story. And once the idea of a big-screen The Dogs of Babel takes hold, suddenly all the novel's baffling and out-of-place elements begin to make sense. In fact, from a film perspective at least, they become almost requisite. It's no surprise that the rights to the novel have recently been bought by a Hollywood production company.
Here is the novel's plot: Lexy, a troubled artist specializing in plaster death masks, falls either accidentally or on purpose from the top of the couple's backyard apple tree. The only witness to the fall is Lorelei, their Rhodesian Ridgeback hound, a breed beautifully described by Parkhurst as having "a distinctive ridge of hair running down the middle of their backs, hair that seems to flow the wrong way, standing up like a long cowlick against their sleek brown coat." The police rule the fall an accident, but Paul, a professor of linguistics, is not so sure: "I began to discover certain anomalies, certain incongruities, that suggested that the day of Lexy's death had not been a usual day." The distraught Paul then latches onto a means to the truth: He will teach the dog Lorelei to speak. In plain English, the hound will tell Paul whether what really happened that fall day was accident or suicide. Dogs, says Paul, "see acts of love and violence, quarrels and feuds, and the secret play of children. If they could tell us everything they have seen, all of the gaps of our lives would stitch themselves together. I feel I have no choice but to give it a try."
From this ambitious if implausible beginning, the novel alternates chapters between the past and the present. The past tells the story of Paul and Lexy's courtship and marriage. The present keeps track of Paul's inquiry into the fall. The chapters on the past are the least outlandish and generally the most compelling. They are filled with moving moments, as when Paul, who wants children, loses the argument to Lexy, who doesn't: "There would still be the two of us, and the bright sky of our love. I could do this for her. This was not so bad. There would be hard times, but what did I care if there were hard times? The branches of my love were wide, and they caught the rain and the snow. We would be okay, the two of us together. We would be okay."
The plot movements in the present, however, often seem truly strange. There are significant episodes that are patently unbelievable: A television psychic who keeps notes on every call she receives; a kind of rebus involving the titles of rearranged books that Samuel Johnson couldn't figure out (but Paul does; he is, after all, a linguist); and, most awkwardly (but maybe most cinematically), a subplot involving a cult of Hell's Angels-types who meet regularly to steal neighborhood dogs, take them to a secret basement and perform gruesome throat surgeries on them. The purpose of these Mengele-like butchers? To create talking dogs, of course. Yes, yes, just like Paul, only less humanely. But no, we're never told why, other than that they're followers of an imprisoned dog torturer/scientist.
When The Dogs of Babel was released last year in hardcover, it made the New York Times best-seller list based on almost unanimously positive reviews. While some reviewers were perplexed by the odd blend of earnest love story, unsubtle symbolism and outlandish farce, most recognized Parkhurst's enormous talent. Whatever it was trying to accomplish, The Dogs of Babel certainly introduced a prodigiously talented young writer. Parkhurst may indeed hit it big in the movies, but one hopes she continues to develop her literary abilities as well.
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