No man is an island, but that doesn’t stop the narrator of Joseph O’Neill’s slim but engrossing follow-up to Netherland from trying to minimize the isthmus connecting him to the mainland of humanity. Living (or more accurately existing) in the no-questions-asked desert of Dubai — where men and islands both can be fabricated — makes this an easier task, but working as a faithful rubber stamper for a family of obscene and dubious wealth places him in certain legal crosshairs. Thus he’s constructed himself a pillow fort of liability disclaimers and plausible deniability. But, of course, this can only protect him so much.
The narrator’s flat affect, droning with lawyerly pedantry and extenuation, can make reading The Dog a little like looking over some legal documents. But as with any paperwork, the really important stuff is between the lines, and the character’s retreat into a purely contractual view of the world — he calculates the exact percentage of his salary he needs to donate in order to assuage his guilt over Dubai’s quasi-enslaved immigrant workforce — starts to reveal itself as well-disguised pathos. Lest I make it sound like a slog, the novel is often wonderfully droll, especially in its portrayal of the oddities of a city whose ”mission is to make itself indistinguishable from its airport.” Also, always amusing are the protagonist’s mentally composed emails, never-to-be sent missives in which he lists all of his grievances like an office-computer version of Saul Bellow’s Herzog. O’Neill makes this unlikable figure engaging despite his disdain for engagement. But he’s kind enough to leave him nameless, which is how he would want it. A-