Thursday, April 10, 1997

Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kirsten Bakis

A review of Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kirsten Bakis

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
April 10th, 1997

A Dog’s Life

By Kirsten Bakis
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $23

“But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them immediately before him, cheek leaning against cheek, watching the final act. ‘Like a dog!’ he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlast him.”
—Franz Kafka, The Trial

In Franz Kafka’s world the lives of humans and animals are intimately connected—and usually in creepy ways: Gregor Samsa wakes to find himself transformed into a giant beetle in “The Metamorphosis”; in “Investigations of a Dog” the narrator is a reasoning canine that finds itself alienated from its essential dogginess; in “The Burrow” a giant mole-like animal finds itself in a horrifyingly human existential terror. These stories can be read as human parables played out in animal shapes, but they are also pointed comments on the interrelatedness of the biological world. And now, with modern science negating many of the meaningful differences between humans and animals (if any biological being can be cloned, do we have individual human souls?), the relationship is all the more dramatic.

In her debut novel, Lives of the Monster Dogs, Kirsten Bakis revisits and updates some of the ground Kafka laid, creating a terrifying vision of biology for the new millennium. The book mostly takes place between 2009 and 2011, when a group of 150 monster dogs moves to New York City. At first nobody knows anything about them except that they walk upright, wear nineteenth-century clothes, have mechanically human hands, and can talk. They’re reclusive and extremely wealthy, and because of their shyness they almost disappear into myth during their first year in New York.

Through a strange coincidence the narrator, Cleo Pira, happens to form a friendship with Ludwig von Sacher, a German Shepherd who functions as the dogs’ historian. Through Ludwig, Cleo meets Klaue, the dogs’ self-appointed leader, and she unwittingly becomes the dogs’ human liaison and chronicler.

As she becomes closer friends with Ludwig, she learns about the dogs’ history. Ludwig has the only surviving written documents from the dogs’ past, and he is putting together a history he plans to call “Lives of the Monster Dogs.” It seems the dogs were the brainchild of a mad Frankenstein-esque biologist from nineteenth-century Prussia named Augustus Rank. Rank imagined an army of perfectly obedient soldiers—dog soldiers—that would help him conquer Europe. Befriending Wilhelm II, the future ruler of the German empire, Rank gets funding to work on his invention. But he’s eventually forced to flee—to Canada—when he doesn’t succeed.

Setting up a remote town called Rankstadt with embezzled money, Rank spends the rest of his life working on his dogs. He never lives to see the final creation, but his followers carry on his dream and eventually perfect the dogs. In his absence, the followers—and then the dogs—set up a complex mythology around Rank, expecting him to return and lead them all to world domination.

Cleo learns all this by reading Ludwig’s papers, and eventually she finds out that the dogs rose and slaughtered the humans in Rankstadt, deciding to go out into the world by themselves. But what happens in the present is just as shocking. The dogs, while they are as genteel and refined as Prussian aristocrats, are still dogs, and try as they might, they will never be human. As Bakis writes, “It is a terrible thing to be a dog and know it.”

Lives of the Monster Dogs is a virtuoso pastiche of literary styles—part history, part memoir, part correspondence, part diary; it even includes a twenty-page libretto for an opera written and performed by dogs. Bakis is an ingenious mimic, but what’s even more impressive is her understanding of how to put together a compelling narrative. She’s slyly old fashioned, working the bizarre, postmodern mishmash into an absolutely thrilling series of progressions. What results is a kind of Calvino-meets-Dickens novel that simply explodes with meaning and style.

The word “explodes” might also be just the right way to describe how this book ends. In trying to deal with their increasing alienation from the canine and human worlds, the dogs throw a bash even more saturnalian than the one at the end of P.D. Eastman’s classic kids’ book Go Dog Go. Without giving away any of the ending’s substance, lets’ just say that Lives of the Monster Dogs is the dog party to end all dog parties.

—David Wiley

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