Every once in a while, I come across a novel that causes me to throw some side-eye the author’s way. The most recent novel to do this is The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst.
The Dogs of Babel is the story of linguist Paul Iverson, who calls home one day to find out his wife Lexy is dead. The only witness to her death is their dog, Lorelei, and so Paul sets out to teach the dog to speak so he can find out what really happened.
Now I’d first heard of Babel on a screenwriting website. It seems someone adapted the book and the resulting screenplay was so good, it made that year’s Black List. Reportedly, they were looking for an A-list actor for the role of Paul and blah blah bliggity blue. The way the story had been reported, I thought Babel was going to be a comedy of some sort. Anyway, when I’d found the novel at my new favorite book store Book Off, I decided to pick it up. What the hey, the premise was certainly intriguing. Unfortunately, what made for an intriguing premise turned out to be a patience-testing exercise in banality.
First, the novel actually spends precious little time exploring Paul efforts to teach Lorelei to speak. It is, in fact, a meditation on Paul’s relationship with Lexy. How it came to be, how their love progressed, and how it may (or may not) have impacted the events of Lexy’s last day alive. I admit, the meeting between the two characters was cute – it’s the very definition of “meet cute,” if you ask me – but as we move forward, it becomes abundantly clear that Lexy is, excuse the phrase, fucking insane.
Lexy designs custom masks for a living, and is several years younger than Paul. She’s impulsive, spontaneous, and off her rocker. On their first date, she convinces Paul to drive from wherever they live (Virginia, I think) to Disney World. She also states that they cannot eat dinner because dinner always comes at the end of every date. So each meal consists of appetizers, snacks, and the like. I suppose this was an effort to make Lexy seem quirky; instead, she came off as a loon.
Throughout the novel, Lexy has emotional outbursts, and they grow increasingly violent. In one scene, after Paul offers a slight bit of criticism on her latest work, Lexy takes a knife to the mask, completely destroying it before crumpling into a sobbing ball of delirium.
It was hard for me to truly understand why Paul was so in love with her. Sure, love doesn’t always make sense, especially to those on the outside looking in. But that’s just one of the missteps Parkhurst makes here. She doesn’t make us understand why Paul is so devoted to Lexy. He just is. That’s just not enough.
Oh, yeah, we almost forgot about the dog. There’s a tiny bit of subplot thrown in about a secret society of people dedicated to “canine communication,” an unseemly lot who have no qualms about surgically altering butchering dogs in an effort to see their goals come to fruition. Interestingly enough, it’s the only part of the novel that generates any excitement. But it also feels somewhat tacked on, a throwaway bit that Parkhurst included because, hey, this is supposed to be a novel about teaching a dog to talk.
The Dogs of Babel disappoints because Paul gets no closer to understanding his wife – her life or her death – come the end of the novel. And as for Lorelei, well, let’s just say she won’t be much assistance in helping Paul figure things out.
No, we’re not given hard and fast answers, and I recognize that’s how it is sometimes. But we’re also left without any resolution, without any closure. It feels like a huge waste of time. And that’s why, in the end, this novel is simply not satisfying. Though it purports to be a tale of communication and understanding, The Dogs of Babel ultimately has nothing at all to say.