André Alexis takes a philosophical walk with man’s best friend in Fifteen Dogs, contemplating life, love and death through the eyes of a loyal companion.
The intricately woven story opens with a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo that leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs at a Toronto veterinary clinic. What unravels is a complex story of a pack who are divided and challenged on whether to embrace change or resist the new ways of thinking – reverting back to the old ‘dog’ ways.
The 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize- and Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize-winning novel is the first selection in Western Reads, a book club series celebrating great works by four Canadian and American authors. On April 27, readers are invited to discuss Fifteen Dogs at an event held at 7 p.m. in Somerville House, Room 3320. Western News Editor Jason Winders will facilitate this discussion.
When writing Fifteen Dogs, Alexis was cognizant of making the central characters assume a humanist way of being, contemplating existential questions about life, death and divinity.
“The essential thing about humans is a consciousness about death,” said the former Western Writer-in-Residence. “Everything dies. We all die. Part of giving human ways of thinking is looking at death.”
This novel goes beyond personification; rather, it explores a metaphysical question about what would happen if animals were given human intelligence. Alexis chose dogs to embody his central characters because of his lifelong relationship and familiarity with the pets. Through the different lens, Alexis is able to cast a new perspective or “weird angle” on questions about life, love, divinity and power.
“I’ve learned the meaning of death through dogs,” he said, over the audible barking of dogs in the background of the interview. The story “started out being just about the pack, then it became about the individual dog,” he added.
Throughout his writing, Alexis tackles philosophical questions exploring questions about his art form.
“Fifteen Dogs ended up being a potted history of philosophy,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in being a philosopher. I was interested in using philosophical ideas that allowed us to see the phenomenon of our thinking from a different angle.”
Alexis sees philosophy as a journey to a deeply intelligent place that is not grounded in the reality of the world so much as it is in the searching of and attitude towards the world by abandoning “what you think you know” and to be naïve and innocent, he said. Like in Fifteen Dogs, the author is looking for new ways to understand and contemplate monumental questions about existence.
“The journey of a lifetime is asking ‘What does art mean?’ And then you tumble into a lifetime of work trying to figure that out,” he asked. “Art means no one thing. You can try to refine the questions and refine your answers, and it gives you some sense you have come to grips with the thing.”
The author finds a connection between his earlier works, such as Pastoral, to Fifteen Dogs and now he dives deeper into themes of philosophy of ethics in his latest work in progress, Hidden Keys. One of his characters, Majnoun, makes an appearance in the new novel as well.
“Having used philosophical ideas in a different way for me in Fifteen Dogs, I thought, ‘That’s interesting. I can do that again and maybe see it from a different angle.’
“The ideas of divinity, language, poetry and notion of love is attached thematically to my work,” he continued. “If you talk about love in fiction, brings up certain questions, like ‘What is the lover?’ ‘What is the issue between two human beings?’ ‘Is there such a thing as love?’ These questions aren’t necessarily answerable in one book and they find their way into the next.”
“You will answer in one book the questions to your satisfaction, but then feel you need to go further. That’s how your themes develop. You go back to the things of interest to you and re-work them and think about them in a different context. Much like I am dealing with human thinking in the context of dogs, means you see them differently and work them out differently.”
Along with the celebrity surrounding writing an award-winning book, Alexis has received support and criticism from dog lovers alike.
“People who come at it as dog lovers hate me for killing off all of the dogs,” he said. “Part of the point to giving human ways of thinking to these dogs was a way of looking at that death and approaching how we approach death. Each of the animals deals with their own death and it is horrifying because it is happening to the animals. But really, it happens to us. We all die.
“But then, there are people who get the philosophical aspects of it and think about the philosophical aspects divorced from the dogs,” he said. “So you have everything from the dog lovers who hate me to the dog lovers who love me – and the philosophers who hate me and the philosophers who like me because they can see I am doing things in an interesting way with concepts they are familiar with.”