In an interview he gave to Studio International magazine in 1971, the English novelist J.G. Ballard described how the surrealist movement of the ’20s arose from its interest in psychoanalysis, which accepted the distinction between the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality. This inner world, as Freud and others had previously suggested, was a fiction of repressed fantasies, dreams, and visions.
Surrealism molded these two worlds together. By the ’70s, however, the landscape of the outer world, which the surrealists had once sought to challenge, had altered. As Ballard explained, “There are really no surrealist painters [now, because] this position has been reversed. It’s the external world which is now the paramount realm of fantasy. And it’s the internal world of the mind which is the node of reality that most of us have.”
Ballard was a prophet who had an incredible ability to predict how culture developed with technology. One of his biggest obsessions as a writer was concerned with how the new media landscape—following the boom of postwar-late capitalism—created a society in the West that was increasingly geared toward alienated, pleasure-seeking individuals.
Where the 18th and 19th centuries saw people interacting cheek by jowl in major cities, toward the end of the 20th century human beings became increasingly isolated in suburban houses—often, but not always—watching television, consuming pornography, or playing computer games that allowed them to act out numerous violent fantasies.
Joseph O’Neill’s compelling new novel, The Dog, is concerned with capturing this fragmented, stateless, and alienated society. The world we enter here is one of promised luxury: velvet ropes, fancy hotels, postmodern architecture, air-conditioned apartments, segregated communities, and a spiral of building projects that seem to continue on into the desert forever.
O’Neill has always been interested in exploring the various geographical spaces we occupy in an increasingly smaller, but ever more estranged, global community. Netherland, published in 2008, attempted to capture a feeling of emptiness in the West after the catastrophic events of 9/11.
In one brilliant scene, Hans, Netherland’s protagonist, while watching images from Google Earth, speaks about how “there is no sign of nations, [and] no sense of the work of man.”
It’s not too surprising, then, to find O’Neill’s current novel set in Dubai, a city that’s been transformed in the last few decades from a small Middle Eastern trading port into a towering bastion of cosmopolitan global capitalism.
The chief narrator explaining all of this isn’t given a name. So, for the purpose of clarity, I’m going to refer to him as (). From the information we are given, he appears to be around 40 years old. A former lawyer from New York who has just come out of a toxic breakup, he holds the position of “family officer” at the Batros Foundation: a multimillion-dollar global conglomerate, principally operating in Africa, but with an office in Dubai for tax purposes.
The job involves keeping an eye on holdings, trusts, investments, and portfolios. But () admits to the reader that he’s usually signing off on stuff he barely understands.
As a former lawyer himself, O’Neill is a master of documenting the absurdity of bureaucratic language. And long lists of clauses, sub clauses, terms and conditions, articles of association, and the unintelligible jargon of corporate speak—all dominate much of the narrative.
As I read on and became swamped in this technocratic, existential-limbo land— where clarity, or any sense of purpose, is impossible—I thought of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous masterpiece, The Pale King, which similarly recalls the mind-numbing language of finance, bonds, tax forms, and derivatives.
I was also reminded how monotonous clerical work informed much of Kafka’s fiction, a theme from which O’Neill has clearly borrowed heavily.
O’Neill’s hope is to grind the reader down with this unintelligible legalese: where any attempt to arrive at meaning becomes futile.
Dubai, the novel’s milieu, almost becomes a microcosm for the world at large. If nation-states once gave each individual a vision, common ideology, or value system in which they could find meaning, modern capitalism—O’Neill subtly seems to be suggesting here—has made this idea of a shared purpose obsolete. What matters now is one thing only: freedom that comes from the power of earning endless bundles of cash.
It’s the paradox contained within that freedom—which money supposedly offers—that O’Neill keeps coming back to again and again.
For example, () continually uses prostitutes from Eastern Europe who cost hundreds of dollars per session. After having gotten his fill of sexual pleasure, he spends hours on the Internet looking up satellite images of Soviet housing complexes and empty, burnt-out gas stations. He’s using technology and money, hoping he can somehow connect to the emotional lives of these women. Instead, he’s left with a feeling of hollow isolation.
The narrative can thus be viewed from two separate angles. If the clinical, Kafkaesque prose style intends on the one hand to bore the reader into submission—showing how such language protects power and wealth in the first place—the other half of the book is dedicated entirely to re-creating fictional fantasies that are prominent in the characters’ minds at all times.
This dichotomy between both registers of language—which distinguishes between power and desire—is the novel’s defining and greatest attribute.
We can clearly see reverberations of Ballard here, most notably novels like Crash and High Rise, which place enormous emphasis on the connection between money, sex, alienation, and technology.
Ballard’s work was consistently preoccupied with how modern capitalism offers the illusion of societies constantly existing in a transient world, where pleasure can be derived at ease from this continual sense of moving. He often referred to the modern suburb, for example, as “a sort of airport culture.”
Similarly, O’Neill sees Dubai as a never-ending conveyor belt of choice. As one character bluntly tells us, “Dubai’s undeclared mission is to make itself indistinguishable from its airport.”
In another passage, after arriving back from a business meeting in New York, () describes arriving in the dream-like world that is Dubai International Airport. He explains that he is “in a vast white palace filled with rows of the grandest white columns in the world, [pointing] to a civilization, wiser and more advanced than ours, elsewhere in the cosmos and elsewhere in time.”
Within the space of a few sentences there is often a random flight to Heathrow, New York, or a small idyllic coastal town in Turkey, to sort out some problems at the Batros Foundation. Talk at dinner parties often refers to the next up and coming city—Shanghai, Rio, or Dar es Salaam: each destination holds more promise than the last one.
When isn’t flying off to different countries to escape his own disturbing reality—a world of empty rooms, where individuals fill their time masturbating to depraved sexual acts beaming from laptop screens—he is fantasizing about a life of illicit affairs funded by unlimited credit cards.
The possibilities of these fantasies become ever more attractive whenever () turns on his television set. A typical infomercial displays: "Men tossing car keys to smiling parking valets, and women emerging long-leggedly from sports cars, and childless couples in their late thirties getting together to drink champagne on yachts."
O’Neill also likes to give his readers little clues to keep them second-guessing. Many characters are often referred to as though they were the stuff of rumor. We are given various descriptions of their Facebook profiles, LinkedIn accounts, and idyll gossip surrounding their personal and online lives.
Most notably a mysterious Mr. And Mrs. Ted Wilson, who seemed to have disappeared without a trace—but who occupy the narrator’s mind in a never-ending fantasy. The more fictional they appear, the more important they become.
This style of prose—where more is hidden than revealed, where ideas can be worked out with metaphor, allegory, and presumption—gives readers space to draw their own conclusions. And when I put down this book, a comment from the American novelist Ben Marcus instantly resonated in my mind: “Any comprehension we have is an illusion. And that certainty itself [in writing] is a sign that we are not thinking properly.”
As O’Neill’s compelling novel reaches its nihilistic conclusion, () becomes completely unsure of his place in the world. Paranoia consumes him. And, like Kafka’s K, he is about to be put on trial for a crime he feels he didn’t commit.
Critics rightly label O’Neill as a kind of zeitgeist novelist. But The Dog surpasses simply documenting the alienation endemic in the 21st-century global village. Instead, it walks a fine line between the imaginary fantasies of our mind and the so-called reality that, as Ballard suggested more than 40 years ago, is now the greatest fiction of all.
A cynic might argue that seeking out truth in such a culture, where the line between fiction and the real world is no longer entirely plausible, is an impossibility. But having writers like O’Neill, who are determined to produce cerebral and intelligent literature, which somehow strives to keep us searching for a moral core, or fixed sense of identity, however difficult that may be, makes that task slightly less galling than it ought to be.