Funeral for a Dog: Little wobble in this three-legged debut
There are two well-worn paths to literary innovation: tell a story that is unlike any other, or tell a very common story, but do it in a way that has never been tried before. Funeral for a Dog, the debut novel by the German author Thomas Pletzinger, does a little of both. Its aspirations to tell a new story are announced in its epigraph, a quote from Max Frisch admonishing those who claim that all possible love stories have already been told. Likewise, the book's opening pages - a series of fragmentary postcards written just after the plot of the novel ends - immediately declare Pletzinger's intentions to tell this story in an innovative way.
Much of the fun of Funeral for a Dog is watching Pletzinger attempt to rise to these two challenges, which he does with some success. Plotwise, he develops the standard trope of the love triangle by adding his own little twist: unlike with most triangles, where one lover is trying to edge the other out of the way, the emotions in this triangle can only be sustained so long as all three principals remain engaged. The irony that buttresses Funeral's elaborate plot is that jealousy and envy make such a situation impossible.
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The innovation in Pletzinger's method of storytelling takes a little longer to explain. He places us in the shoes of his narrator, Daniel Mandelkern, whose situation is rather like that of an unwanted guest who arrives late to a party in which something horrible has just happened. A hack journalist recovering from a spell in academic life, Mandelkern has been sent by his boss (who is also his wife) to profile Svensson, the reclusive author of a dark children's book that has become an unexpected phenomenon. Mandelkern makes the flight from Hamburg to Lugano where, instead of commencing the interview, he is unexpectedly taken to the author's ramshackle estate just over the Italian border.
Svensson has actually come to town to pick up Tulli, an attractive woman with a young boy in tow, and it soon becomes clear that there is something between them. But what? And why does the titular dog, Svensson's beloved pet, have only three legs? Svensson and Tulli are less than forthcoming. Yet even as Mandelkern attempts to pry facts from the surly author and his guest, he wrestles with a problem of his own. Just before he left Hamburg he had a drunken fight with his wife/boss, over her intention to have a baby despite a previous miscarriage.
Mandelkern's bumbling feints and leaps reveal the complex narrative threads that have brought him, Svensson, and Tulli to this unique moment together. Much credit is due to Pletzinger for elegantly juxtaposing and entwining episodes from Mandelkern's and Svensson's pasts via the journal-like notes that Mandelkern makes for his profile, as well as an autobiographical manuscript of Svensson's that our just-intrepid-enough journalist fishes out of a locked chest. In many ways Pletzinger's novel is an impressive performance, his web of narrative and thematic strands a delightful mess that makes a virtue of its baroque complexity.
It helps that Mandelkern is an entertaining narrator. His quietly mordant wit and slacker demeanour are evident on every page, adding welcome depth to the text, which otherwise hews very close to the facts of the story. His main writerly tic - and the novel's biggest stylistic risk - is to keep inserting bursts of parenthetical commentary: "I try to count the pictures and lose track (my empirical methods). I should call Elisabeth, I could take the boat and escape across the lake, but I remain in Svensson's kitchen (Svensson's museum). Above the sink hangs a mirrored cabinet as in bathrooms, but Svensson's house has no bath, only a yellow-tiled water closet (Svensson has only the lake)." Functioning somewhere between footnotes and Mandelkern's boiling subconscious, these interjections give rhythm to the narration while effectively breaking up the steady stream of concrete detail with the more abstract stuff of fears, hopes, guesses, and raw emotion.
The autobiographical manuscript that Mandelkern discovers introduces Svensson as a second narrative voice, supremely unreliable and supremely dry. The veracity of Svensson's story must be doubted (he frequently talks to his three-legged dog and has an unbelievable sexual escapade) yet, along with Mandelkern, we come to believe in a fundamental authenticity to the heartache it communicates. This is partly by necessity - the manuscript is all we have of the glowering, tight-lipped Svensson; yet it is more because we see that this manuscript is the only way this tired, torn man can exorcise some unbearably difficult memories he has carried with him for years.
Pletzinger makes good use of what might be called narrative metonymy to tease out provocative connections between his two oddly similar men. During his flight, Mandelkern struggles to wipe away a spot of blood from a wound that his wife dealt him during their argument; it becomes paired with the blood that Svensson wipes on his T-shirt as he wanders lovelorn through New York City. Likewise, the lives of each are impacted deeply by September 11, 2001 - though for purely middle-class reasons that are incidental to the terrorist atrocity. Towards the end of the book Pletzinger repeatedly (perhaps a little too repeatedly) appeals to the concept of Borromean Rings to describe Svensson's love triangle - if any of the three joined rings is broken, the entire structure fails. This is the new kind of love story hinted at in Frisch's epigraph; and with all the overlap between Svensson's and Mandelkern's stories, it's not hard to see the form of the novel also echoing this interlocking ring structure.
Funeral for a Dog is a very accomplished first novel, but it does have problems. Mandelkern's charmingly inept blunders make for fine entertainment, yet his perpetual lack of agency can grow exasperating. This fault becomes a true liability just as Funeral has wound up its characters' backstories and is pivoting into what should be a taut final act: without any decisiveness on the part of the protagonist, the narrative momentum grinds to a halt, the climax fizzles, and we are forced to wade through pages of Mandelkern rehashing what we already know in the hope that something new will happen. While the book does eventually recover to conclude with a satisfying ending, the damage has been done.
Moreover, there is too much unevenness to the novel's many subplots. While Pletzinger can surely tell a tale - his depiction of a Manhattan street-ball game between some tough Hispanics and a hung-over, sexually defeated Svensson is at once hilarious, menacing, and narratively meaningful - too many of his stories never really go anywhere. A key scene in which the two men in the love triangle - Svensson and Felix - anxiously wait to hear from their lover amid the wreckage of September 11, smoulders without much impact. Similarly, the coke and booze frenzy that follows her eventual return feels shallow, as though Pletzinger has failed to communicate the longing and angst the reunion seems to demand. His bare sentences littered with pointless details ("Someone put on electronic music. A few people joined us in the kitchen, Felix switched to whiskey…") strive for a Hemingwayish stoicism in the face of incomprehensible emotions but only come across as confused and devoid of interest.
Despite the missteps this is a highly auspicious debut. Pletzinger shows signs of a style that will build on the literary innovations of the 20th century while deconstructing the globalised culture of the 21st. Funeral for a Dog proves that he has something better than mere ambition - a quality mediocre writers have never lacked. He also has the sense to direct it toward authentically original, interesting ends. To paraphrase something Borges once said of 20th-century literature, the 21st century will require new plots to match up to our new realities. Pletzinger promises to be a writer who can give them to us.
Scott Esposito is the editor of the Quarterly Conversation, an online literary journal.
Updated: April 1, 2011 04:00 AM