Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Nature of the Beast, revisited: The literary edition

"What? An out-of-the-ordinary dog book? I'm all ears."

Truthfulness in animal-human relationships has long been a hobby horse of mine, along with my unyielding belief that the best avenue to them runs one way: These relationships are most likely when we interact with animals on their own territory, instead of on ours. We have the capacity to reach across that divide, across that river of rationality we crossed so long ago. They do not. As a result, relationships with animals on our terms tend to center around what we want animals to be, and not what they really are.

Domesticated animals, by definition, reside deeply within the human world. When we refrain from projecting too many human anxieties, feelings or needs onto a companion animal, we honor their animal nature and allow them to live their lives. I believe the same is true with wildlife. The documentary Raising Sancho, and my good friend Carolina Vargas, who immersed herself in the giant otter world to raise – and then lose – the orphaned cub Sancho, offer an example of a deeply truthful relationship between a human and a wild animal.

Can a work of fiction accomplish this? Can a work of fiction be a truthful exploration into the nature of a dog? Can a work of fiction enter the animal world and allow its canine protagonist to be herself, instead of merely what people want or need her to be? These are the questions raised by Rose in a Storm, a book I began reading a few weeks ago after an interesting exchange with the author. (I won’t offer a synopsis; there is an excellent one at the previous link. I’ll wait for you.)

I follow Katz’s blog via Facebook, and have read many of his books about life on Bedlam Farm. Indeed, much of my thinking on animal-human relationships has been deeply influenced by Katz’s work. So I was aware he had a new book out – a novel, told from the perspective of a dog. One day, I followed a link on his blog to find that Rose in a Storm had received a somewhat weary-sounding review in the Washington Post that devoted its opening paragraphs to snarking about the extreme competence of the book’s protagonist, Rose, a workaholic border collie. The review then proceeded to its chief complaint – the essential stoicism and humorlessness of both Rose and the entire book. I had not read the book yet, but I did notice in the closing lines of the review a final criticism: “…Katz’s occasional forays into doggie mysticism clash oddly with the matter-of-fact narration.”

My brow furrowed on cue. I thought Katz had been writing that way for a long time. As long as I’d been reading him, he had been wrestling with the tension between mysticism and logical rationality. I first wrote about it here in 2007. To me, that was the beauty of so much of his work. Far from “clashing”, I felt it represented a willingness to grapple with complexity and paradox. I left a comment to that effect on his post about the review, which spawned an interesting dialogue between author and reader.

I wondered at the time if what we were really talking about was not rationalism or mysticism, but the tension, co-existence and interplay of the two. In his book A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life, that tension is prominently on display. In A Good Dog, Katz relates the rational yet crushing decision to euthanize his beloved dog that had become a danger to people, and by extension, every other dog. But the very rationality of that decision honored the mysticism of dogs, and Orson’s own canine nature. In this way, we see that rationality and mysticism aren’t at opposite ends of a spectrum, but rather complementary orientations: Projecting human needs onto dogs and emotionalizing our relationships with them crushes their mystique just as surely as thinking of them as nothing more than meat computers. Rationality, which arguably stems from our instinctual animal natures in the first place, is thus what protects and honors the mystique of those animal natures, by preventing human overreaching. We all emotionalize our animals, at least to some extent. What I appreciate about Katz is that he never allows himself to become really comfortable with it, and he doesn’t allow it to interfere with his animals’ lives.

Anyone who cares deeply about animals, and lives with them closely, is going to have to wrestle with that tension. It’s here that Rose fits in. It seems to me that Rose in a Storm, despite its “occasional forays into doggie mysticism” – and more likely because of them – first and foremost attempts a genuine exploration of the nature of a particular dog, and of the larger canine consciousness. The story’s most powerful actors are canids of some kind -- domesticated, wild, and even apparitional – and those categories are fluid throughout the story. This tale of an extraordinary human-affiliated dog, with one paw still in her wild legacy, lives at the intersection of rational and mystical. But then, doesn’t all of nature?

The result is not a happy-go-lucky doggie tale. It is not goofy or humorous. It is not sentimental, and is at times deeply unsettling. (The narration of the story from the dog’s perspective taps so well into primitive, old-brain consciousness that I had to put it down several times to take a daylong break and re-center my forebrain.) I don’t mean to denigrate the goofy/cuddly/adorable dog genre, or even to suggest that those stories can’t reflect the kind of truth I hold dear. Dogs are often all of those things, and I love that about them, and I love what that does for people. I often love those books. But that’s only a slice of the world of dogs – and a frankly overrepresented one. This is not your ordinary dog book. Rose is much more powerful, and more like whole life, with its moments of darkness and its full complement of feelings.

The notion that "dog lovers" will be the most reliable fans of this book is far too simplistic. Rose is very much Rose in this book, and may not fit the emotional needs of dog enthusiasts accustomed to, as Katz put it, writing their stories on the blank canvasses of dogs. I think the biggest fans of this book will be readers comfortable dipping a toe or two into the realm of myth, who are easy with paradox and complexity, and able to honor what we cannot see and do not know.

Though not at all sentimental, Rose in a Storm is deeply emotional. In that respect the story speaks also to my other deepest interest, the defining personal battle. Anyone who has undergone what Elizabeth Lesser calls a “Phoenix Process” will recognize a familiar arc in Rose’s epic – her struggle through a relentless battering of misfortune and challenge unfolding into a Zen-like surrender to the forces opposing her, near-destruction, recovery, and finally, new growth and peace.

But is it good? you might ask. Of course it’s good, I’ll reply impatiently, with a wave of my hand. Of course it’s entertaining. All of Katz’s books are delightfully and engagingly written. But there is far more to it than that. This work of fiction, by definition not “real,” is nonetheless deeply truthful, because the story takes place on her territory, and not ours. So beware. This story is about Rose, and not what we want or need her to be. This book will place you squarely into her mind and her life. It’s a remarkable place to go, if you have the courage.


  1. I have been wanting to read this book ever since you first mentioned it. It does sound very different from the kind of dog books I have read in the past; from your review and insights about the book it rather reminds me of the kind of writing that Jack London did, only deeper, more involved. Very good writing on your part Jen and, quite thought provoking. :)

  2. I just finished reading this book today; actually I read it non-stop from when I started this morning. Then, reading Jon's blog comments about your review of his book prompted me to visit. You have written an excellent article, and I am in agreement with your analysis of this powerful story. Animal mystique is a most interesting idea; unfortunately a vast majority of people refuse to even entertain the possibility. Thank you for your critique of this powerful story!

  3. Excellent and agreed. I read Katz because he challenges the way we typically seem to want to view the animals in our lives and braids those animals into the reality of his own life's twists and turns. Paradoxical, indeed. Great review, thanks.

  4. Thanks to all three of you. Katz on Dogs was the first book of his I read, and it was thoroughly gratifying to have so many of the conventional attitudes towards dogs challenged. I like that I can read one of his books and on the same page, find something I disagree with and then something that completely clicks into place. It's a very good thing, I think, to have that blend.

  5. Wow, Jen. I just caught up with Bedlam Farm Journal. High praise for you there, and well deserved! I just finished Rose a couple of weeks ago. My husband looked up and caught me crying. He'll never understand how the tears at the end are actually the very best part. I wouldn't have missed it for anything (however, I do regret buying it as an e-book; I think I would have preferred a brick-and-mortar copy of Rose...).


  6. Thanks, Kristy. I miss the old days. I wish you would either be assimilated by the Facebook borg, or blog more. Any hope of either?

  7. Assimilated? Moi? My problem with Facebook is that it is difficult to do annonymously--and I want a place where I can rant and rave without fear of family or boss peeking in and getting offended. I may be blogging more. Maybe.

    Hey, it doesn't help that Ed Troyer has a fan site on Facebook. And I didn't initiate it. Where were all these "fans" back when I was trying to enlighten the world to the unique charms of Ed Troyer? Where?


  8. I have to think you started the trend that someone just moved to facebook. I mean, you *are* the original Ed Troyer fangirl.

    I know what you're saying about facebook. That's why I wasn't on it for a long time. Now I just use it for different stuff, and when I want to vent, I use the handy "custom post" feature.

    Obviously it's not my job or place to demand your presence. But I do have to tell you, writing and blogging is a lot more interesting with you around than not.