The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

by Teresa DiFalco

30 July 2003


The Book That Cried "Woof"

“Let sleeping dogs lie . . . who wants to rouse ‘em?”
David Copperfield

From the sweeping biblical reference in the title to a mystery-solving message hidden on book spines, Carolyn Parkhurst’s confusing compilation of symbolism and plot turn will leave you, well, scratching your head.

cover art

The Dogs of Babel

Carolyn Parkhurst

(Little, Brown & Company)

The Dogs of Babel is Parkhurst’s first novel, and getting quite a lot of attention. Book magazine calls her “one of the new writers to watch”. Esquire, last year, said her book was “one of 34 reasons to be optimistic about 2003”. I’ve seen it in the “Staff Recommendations” sections of three different bookstores and Anna Quindlen said “I read it without stopping, and loved it completely”. I had to put it down several times, myself, and try to figure out what to do with it.

The plot goes something like this: a woman falls out of a tree in her yard and dies. The police rule it an accident, but her husband doesn’t buy it. Luckily their dog saw the whole thing, and her husband is a linguist so he can teach the dog to talk. First, though, he has to learn the ropes from some shady characters who also make dogs talk, but with gruesome tactics. And that’s just the believable stuff.

Parkhurst flirts awkwardly with magical realism. She throws in all the ingredients of an Isabel Allende story—foggy nights, a dream journal, old folklore—but it doesn’t blend. Lexy, the tragically nutty heroine makes masks of dead people. Her hapless widow, Paul, is a linguist. She’s crazy from the beginning, he’s supposed to be sensible. He’s the method, she’s the madness. But after her death he becomes obsessed with getting Lexy’s dog, the only witness, to talk. If he can get the dog to talk, she can tell him whether his wife jumped or fell, which isn’t much of a mystery, but boy those books she rearranged are. A more intriguing mystery is why Paul cares. Without giving too much away, his wife was no stranger to suicide and she wore the mask of a dead woman during sex—details related only in that they are two of many writings on the wall that Paul impossibly failed to see. Like in a bad horror film where the main character skips blissfully unaware past fatal warning signs—you want to yell, “She’s nuts, Paul—and you’re not too bright!”

There are psychics and hotlines and messages scratched on collars, I appreciate the concept but the effect falls short. There are many great build-ups, but too many of them fall flat, not from Parkhurst’s writing skill, but from the elements of her story. For instance:

“This is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: Lexy didn’t jump. The wounds she suffered in her fall, the break of her bones and the wreck of her organs, the haphazard spill of her blood in the dirt, have told us this much. But perhaps, and this is where my breath catches in my throat, perhaps she let herself fall.”

A well-written passage, but this is an apple tree. It is a tall one, but an apple tree does not readily lend itself to tragic falls. Was she baking a pie, or throwing her life away? That’s a question only a grieving widow with a secure university job and a lot of time off can resolve. To be fair, I’m sure there’s a good reason Lexy chooses the backyard apple tree for such a dramatic gesture, like there’s a good reason for the talking dog subplot and the book titles that spell out a message. Parkhurst really does seem serious about all of this, but I had to force myself to play along. In one scene—a dingy basement where a bunch of creepy guys are waiting for a dog to give a speech - I half-expected Ashton Kutcher to pop out and tell me I’d been “punked”.

M. G. Lord delicately wrote in his review of the book in The New York Times Book Review that “after allowing myself to be swept up in her story, which, because of its extreme implausibility, required some effort, I found that I had gained fresh insights . . .” I’m all for implausibility. The whole idea of crawling in between book covers is to lose yourself. But a writer needs to sell the reader a little bit, or at least make it clear where he’s going. Everyone knows a carriage can’t really turn into a pumpkin, but we love Cinderella because we’re in on it from the beginning. Parkhurst jerks the reader around. Her book jumps from mystery to love story to fairy tale to pulp fiction. There’s a little here for everyone, but it leaves everyone a little unfulfilled.

Still, there is much in the book to take comfort in. Parkhurst is skilled at construction and makes effective use of flashback, delicately drawing Lexy’s back story while moving forward at a nice pace. She drops bits of Lexie like breadcrumbs on Paul’s journeys through his inner forest. And she does a nice turn with a psychic hotline. Though some of her scenes are farcical, some are riveting, particularly the chapter-ending reflections:

“Do you see, then, the way my Lexie liked to make a game of the things of this life? That she carried within her a fine sense of play that colored everything she did? Is it any wonder that I look around at everything she left behind and wonder if she may be playing with me still?”

The book flap suggests a mystery: “strange ‘clues’ in their home: books rearranged on their shelves, a mysterious phone call, and other suggestions that nothing about Lexy’s last afternoon was quite what it seemed.” It’s a great hook. If only the story were what it seemed. Or maybe it’s just the vehicle. For instance, get Jacklyn Smith to play Lexy, with Mark Harmon as Paul and you’ve got yourself one fine little Sunday Night movie on the Lifetime Channel.

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