x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

American author Joseph O’Neill’s Dubai-set novel The Dog makes Man Booker Prize longlist

Alongside the latest books from literary heavyweights such as David Mitchell and Howard Jacobson is a yet-to-be-published novel that explores the expat experience in Dubai.

The Irish-American novelist Joseph O'Neill, author of The Dog. Courtesy The Man Booker Prize
The Irish-American novelist Joseph O'Neill, author of The Dog. Courtesy The Man Booker Prize
For the past 45 years, it's been one of the most coveted prizes in literature. At least for authors lucky enough to count themselves as a citizen of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe. So, when the Man Booker Prize announced that it would start considering English-language writers from anywhere in the world, there was much speculation about what this might mean for international literature and the kinds of novels that would now be under the spotlight.

Not many, however, predicted that a novel set in Dubai would make the 2014 longlist – the self-styled “Booker Dozen” – announced this week. Alongside futuristic stories from literary heavyweights David Mitchell and Howard Jacobson and novels of middle-aged marriage and family from David Nicholls, the author of One Day and Karen Joy Fowler, the author of Jane Austen Book Club, is The Dog by Joseph O'Neill.

And if that title provokes blank looks on the faces of UAE book lovers, fear not. It's a quirk of the Man Booker submissions process that, to be considered for the 2014 prize, a book can be published at any time up to September 30 – and The Dog is not due to hit bookshops until early that month. A spokesman for the HarperCollins imprint Fourth Estate said yesterday that, thanks to its longlisting, we'll now only have a couple more weeks to wait.

So what can we expect? We managed to get a sneak preview yesterday and immediately got the sense that the Irish-American author of Netherland (a post-9/11 vision of New York which Barack Obama once famously called “excellent” and which was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize) knows and understands Dubai. As O'Neill said at the Jaipur Literary Festival earlier this year: “Dubai is a wonderfully rich place.” The beauty of The Dog is that “wonderfully rich” could have all sorts of meanings – both positive and negative. His narrator calls it an “abracadabrapolis”, which is just about the best description of the magic and mania of Dubai we've read – and the prose is shot through with a sardonic sense of humour.

Within five pages, the attorney-narrator is questioning why Americans choose to come to this “strange desert metropolis” rather than trying their luck in California, Texas or New York, and the answer strikes at the heart of the expatriate experience: the reasons are often bound up in escape. It transpires that the narrator of The Dog is indeed looking for a fresh start: his relationship in New York fails in spectacular fashion and an old college friend offers him a job in Dubai overseeing the financial affairs of a wealthy family.

Before long, he's immersed himself in Dubai culture – to the point where The National itself is namechecked in an extended discussion among some of the characters. We mention this not to boast – often, when authors set their novels in places alien to their experience, they namecheck the national newspaper as a shortcut to authenticity. But what O'Neill manages to do is vividly – and pitilessly – capture Dubai life from the point of view of a baffled and cut-adrift outsider. The nameless narrator suffers from guilt about his attitude towards migrant workers and assuages it by setting up an automatic bank transfer to a rights group. He watches impassively as the financial crash hits and expensive cars are left abandoned at the airport.

To be clear, The Dog is unlikely to have a Middle Eastern launch at our local department of tourism. But in any case, O'Neill's aim isn't fixed at the UAE per se, but rather a drifting expat, dislocated from both the world and himself. While Netherland looked at people leaving behind their homeland to become Americans, The Dog does the exact opposite – and once again is full of spectacular insights into the loneliness of modern existence. It'll be fascinating to see if it makes the shortlist in September: in the meantime, look out for an interview with Joseph O'Neill coming very soon.

The Dog (Fourth Estate) is published on August 14. Check out the full Man Booker longlist at www.themanbookerprize.com

artslife@thenational.ae