Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Dogs and Letters

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Dogs and Letters

Article excerpt

Dogs and Letters

The last year has spun me around, AND HERE I AM, nearing the Ides of March 2014, sitting on a worn velvet couch in an old apartment on Via Udine, Rome. Weirdly enough, I am living here. Outside, spring light falls on walls of orange and yellow, shutters of green and blue, balconies full of pots and laundry.

Inside this baroque room, my legs tucked under me, I'm remembering a game I played with one of my brothers 45 years ago: Boat. A big old couch, cream upholstery striped with sage velvet, served as our bark on a stormy sea. At first we pushed each other overboard, upsetting our German shepherd as we threw pillows at each other and struggled to fling ourselves back over the gunwale. Soon enough, though, panting and spent, our thoughts turned to the usual pleasure: stories in books, with or without pictures. I remember sprawling on that couch, sinking into tales about dogs named Ribsy, Lad, or Big Red, my eyes following lines of words while my fingertips blindly picked scabs off one barked knee or the other. Hours would go by before the dog barked and we realized our parents were home from work, and we had to return too.

That echoing bark brings to mind Lome Moore's Bark, one of four collections of short stories that stayed in my head after months of reading.1 Dozens of other books evanesced soon after I read them, but the few that stayed with me did so because of dogs and letters.

Nowadays lots of fiction features dogs, just as many excellent nonfiction books about dog research make the best-seller lists. Recent studies of canine cognition, or dognition, focus on humans, perfect for our narcissistic species. "So, Spot, what do YOU think about me?" Unlike Homo sapiens sapiens, dogs don't wage wars or commit genocide. On the contrary, they've often numbered among our victims. Animal shelters, like the one where I volunteer in Pittsburgh, teem with dogs neglected, betrayed and abandoned by humans. Amazingly, most of them don't bear grudges; they forgive. Even in cages, they come to us wagging their tails, licking our hands, wriggling with delight when we take them out for walks or feed them.

In addition to the dogginess of recent fiction, I keep noticing how many contemporary authors employ epistolary narrative devices. My son just read Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews for a college literature course, and he described the eighteenth-century novel as more post- modern than postmodern fiction. Those early novels threw lots of points of view at the reader, everything from the standard narrator to embedded letters, journals, and other documents. Nor did the plots follow any traditional arc of rising action, climax, and denouement. Instead, in the best imitation of shaggy dogs, they wandered off on digressions that sometimes went nowhere. Readers of those novels had a foretaste of what surfing the internet would be like for their descendants. One thing leads to another, and novels like Fielding's are antic and impure, polyglot and polylogical in the telling, miscellaneous in the best sense of the word.

First, the dogs. Like everyone else who loves irreverent, witty short fiction, I've been waiting fifteen years for Lorrie Moore to bring out a new collection, and finally it's slouched in on big black paws. Bark is dark. Like me, like her, like life, Lorrie Moore's neurotic but hopeful female protagonists have aged; there's less hope here and more dread. Heroines of collections past mused about their careers and the possibility of romantic love, whereas the protagonists of Bark ruminate on loss, deterioration and death. Art's just a song playing in the background, the mural on the wall behind the Last Supper. Reports from the po biz (a phrase Moore made memorable 25 years ago in "The Jewish Hunter") appear mostly in the epigraphs, like this from Louise Glück's "Vita Nova": "O Blizzard / be a brave dog-this is / all material ... / Life is very weird, no matter how it ends, / very filled with dreams. …

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