'Jonathan Unleashed': Nice Dogs, Too Bad About the Jokes

This shoots for the angsty New York comedy of Woody Allen, but it suffers from that which Allen so famously called grounds for divorce: insufficient laughter.

Jonathan Unleashed

Publisher: Viking
Length: 275 pages
Author: Meg Rosoff
Price: $25.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-07

In the closing chapters of Dickens’s David Copperfield, the hero’s wife, Dora, suffers a miscarriage and, after a protracted illness, dies. This tragedy is rendered accidentally comic by Dora’s dog, Jip, who suffers a kind of sympathetic illness with his owner, so that every scene at Dora’s sickbed is accompanied by Jip ‘baulking himself in various asthmatic attempts to scramble up’ onto the bed.

Jip’s suffering is funny because, in it, we can clearly see Dickens rather guilelessly shooting for melodrama. Fictional dogs have served as symbols and heartstring-pullers as long and faithfully as their real-life counterparts have served their owners. While Meg Rosoff doesn’t use dogs for the same cheap ends as Dickens, she still writes them with the same belief that her reader will like them simply because they are dogs.

I feel much the same way about dogs as I do humans: I like most, and love some, but am not predisposed to like the very fact of their existence. This might well be an uncommon opinion -- the internet increasingly has me convinced that it is -- but just know that your mileage with Jonathan Unleashed may vary depending on your feelings about dogs.

Jonathan Unleashed tells the story of a New Yorker in his early 20s who's struggling to adjust to adulthood with the help of two dogs, Sissy and Dante, who may or may not be controlling the events of his life. The book begins from the well-trod set-up of a character who has all the trappings of successful adulthood -- an apartment, a girlfriend, a good job -- but who still feels a stranger in the land of post-college humans. Rosoff is perhaps best known for her YA and children’s novels, and in Jonathan’s plight we feel the concerns of the YA novel transposed onto adulthood, onto a character who still might accurately be described as a young adult, albeit with a job and a sex life.

YA fiction, like its audience, tends to take something of a Manichean view of the world, believing that the struggling unhinged are better, more interesting, and in some essential way more real than those who more successfully fit in. Jonathan Unleashed takes place in such a world, and while this isn’t necessarily a problem in a comic novel, it does make some of the characters seem a little thin and the plot too predictable. For example, it hardly seems a spoiler to say that Jonathan’s girlfriend Julie, an ambitious businesswoman who likes shopping and, more importantly, dislikes dogs, doesn’t stick around until the end, while Greely, all sexy androgyny and anarcho-communal living, does.

All the time one is laughing it’s easy to ignore flat characters and plot, so it's a real problem for Jonathan Unleashed that the comedy never really works as well as it needs to. Rosoff maintains a buoyant, farcical tone throughout by constantly poking around at the book’s central ambiguity, never entirely deciding whether or not Jonathan’s dogs really do make most of his decisions for him.

Unfortunately, Rosoff also has a commitment to the gag that leads her into the tall grasses of puns, such as when Jonathan, uncertain about Greely’s gender, asks a friend ‘Sex?’, to which the friend responds, ‘No thanks.’ This stuff keeps up fairly solidly throughout the book, and after such groaners as ‘Do you take this woman to be your awful wedded wife?’ and a line in which Rosoff describes Jonathan’s coworkers as spending their time ‘looking at videos of kittens or pussy online’, one starts to almost want to read the book through the gaps in one’s fingers for fear of coming across any more of jokes such as these.

Another comic technique frequently employed in Jonathan Unleashed sees language descend into a kind of oh-so-random word salad that is never, never funny. Jonathan, musing on what double-barreled form his name might take after his marriage to Julie wonders whether it might not make more sense to 'choose two completely different names, like Tomato-Gazelle.' If, like me, you cringe slightly at the faux-randomness of ‘Tomato-Gazelle’, you’ll particularly struggle later in the book when Jonathan is rendered temporarily unable to speak except by long strings of this kind of thing: 'Ever the sporadic bean tree, spooning a distant owl.' Unfortunately, this goes on for more than a few chapters.

Much of the comedy of Jonathan Unleashed isn’t bad as such, it often just feels a little tired. Rosoff lavishes attention upon young New Yorkers, and Jonathan can barely enter a cafe without being met by a hipster Hieronymus Bosch. Jonathan Unleashed never trades in anything so cheap as mockery of young people, but jokes about chai lattes and tai chi feel old the first time they appear in this book, so their constant recurrence is a real problem.

All of that being said, Rosoff achieves a comic ambience that works in spite of the jokes, and a story that hums along in spite of its own predictability. The book is never challenging, and thus proves our schoolteachers right by never offering any significant rewards. It is perhaps best thought of as a beach-read in the most literal sense. Sure, it’s relaxing, and even entertaining, but one doesn’t mind getting sand between the pages of this one.

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