Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Poor Lost Doggy (And Also: The Paradox of Modernity)

"Stories are about time. But looking's a present-tense activity. We live in an age where everything's got to be now, because consumerism's based on change. Images seem complicit with that somehow."

Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog is a character study concerning a lost dog, a professor writing a book on Henry James, the elusive artist he loves, and a multitude of interlocking themes. It is a quiet book that achieves just the right balance: it is leisurely and meditative without being boring, and moves steadily without becoming so fast-paced that the reader ends up skimming, too excited to reach the Big Reveal to focus on the art of the prose itself. I hate when that happens.

It is a deeply poignant book, beginning with the Professor Tom's beloved elderly dog disappearing in the Australian backwoods. De Kretser's writing is restrained but effective, sure to tug at the heartstrings of any dog lover. Tom's desire to find his pet quickly unfolds into an introspective exploration of what Marx melodramatically called "the dead hand of the past" that must be exorcised from humanity's collective consciousness if we ever want to be free of its oppressive grip. Still, modernity is a paradox: nothing dates itself quicker than the present. (Kind of like that Hollywood Undead song: "Tomorrow's rock stars fade today!") What is now is past scarcely a second later. The movement in art, literature, and music actually called "Modernism" flourished between roughly 1890 to 1950. The past. It's over, replaced by postmodernism, which some argue evolved into post-postmodernism or post-millenialism or noosphere sometime in the 1990s.

We try to detach ourselves from the animal, from nature, from all vestiges of primitive history, which is nevertheless preserved in specially designated spaces, including parks and certain countries. One day Tom came across his ex-wife sharing photos of their trip to Tom's native India. Her friend was dismayed to see a Christian cross in an Indian home. It just doesn't belong there. "To be eclectic is a Western privilege," Tom concluded,
as was the authentication of cultural artifacts. The real India was the flutter of sari, a perfumed dish, a skull-chained goddess. Difference, readily identified, was easily corralled. Likeness was more subtly unnerving.
It is the historical narrative of Australia, and the United States, and also Canada: Western civilization ruthlessly pushed aside "primitive" natives and built itself up into a gleaming modern metropolis. It is often said that Europeans scoff at Americans (Australians too?) for being a "people without a history." But what is history? Because Aborigines and Native Americans were pushed aside, does that mean they are permanently out of national mind? No, because the past does not die. It becomes the present.

Modernity/postmodernity/post-postmodernity exists for the now. What is now is real. The past is old-fashioned, out-moded - or so we like to think.

Nelly the artist - and by extension, Tom - is haunted by the collapse of her first marriage and the unsolved puzzle surrounding it. Tom is rudely reminded of the passage of time as his mother succumbs to the deterioration of old age. Nelly takes gleaming modernity and makes art out of everyday detritus and the old-but-not-yet-nostalgic. Her paintings are a search for meaning in the fleeting, fickle world of fashion, fads, and advertising. "Art exists because there are realities that exceed words." Everyone uses images nowadays - in fact, a fascination with simulacra (or "hyperreality") is a prominent tenet of postmodernism. But most of these images - and their social context - are merely ethereal. What is left at the end? Urged by the media, we buy and buy, but to what do we hang on?

The Lost Dog is about a lost dog and much, much more. It is a wonderfully complex book to be savored and pondered. It is the kind of book where you mark passages that stand alone as individual thoughts. It is a book to be re-read.

A big thanks to Claire! Here is her review.


Aimee said...

what a lovely review.

E. L. Fay said...

Many thanks!

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