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A Nameless Character Lost And Adrift In 'The Dog'

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Dubai, that glittering spectacle of architectural wonders perched between the desolation of the desert and the vastness of the sea is the setting for Joseph O'Neill's new book, "The Dog." O'Neill won widespread clinical acclaim for his last novel, "Netherland," whose main character was a recently separated foreigner adrift in post-9/11 New York.

The narrator of this latest novel is also recovering from a breakup and also floating aimlessly in a foreign country. But Dubai lacks the heft and camaraderie of New York. And "The Dog" is more a story of estrangement in a strange land. Joseph O'Neill joins us now from our studios in New York. So good to have you with us.

JOSEPH O'NEILL: Hi. Good to be here.

NEARY: So in the book, life in Dubai seems almost surreal. I mean, the buildings have these odd but sort of fanciful names. And it is a city but somehow the way you describe it, I don't know, I get this sense of emptiness about it. And it's international but the ex-pats and the farm workers and the natives all seem to move in completely different circles. It's not very appealing.

O'NEILL: Well, it depends what you want, Lynn. If you want, you know, if you want a kind of a life of swimming pools and malls and shopping malls, you know, you can go to Dubai and probably be quite happy there.

And particularly if you're in a Western ex-pat, you know, you get to have servants. You get to be the beneficiary of an economic sort of inequality, I suppose, that you wouldn't be back home. I suppose the interesting question for me was, is to what extent is Dubai this outlier, and to what extent is it simply a very good mirror of our own social and economic arrangements?

NEARY: There's really an absurd quality to this whole tale, I think. Then this city has a feeling, as I said, has a sort of surreal feeling. The character is this kind of lost soul, sort of nameless.

I mean, he's working for this wealthy Arab family. The job is pretty meaningless. It's also demeaning, which is where the sort of title of the book, "The Dog," comes from because he often feels like he's being treated sort of like a dog.

And he remains a pretty lost soul. But you don't make him terribly sympathetic at the same time.

O'NEILL: Well, I mean, that's simply - I mean, you know, I think some people might sympathize with him. I mean, the reason he's in Dubai is to sort of get away from this horrible breakup he had in New York with his girlfriend, who was also a partner in his law form. So it became impossible for him to continue to work there.

And I suppose his ambition in going to Dubai is simply to escape the possibility of being a source of harm or trouble to anyone else.

He has this kind of rather idealistic, if slightly negative, ambition in life, which is to sort of do no harm. And I suppose, you know, how is that possible? Is it possible for somebody to live a life which isn't at somebody else's expense?

NEARY: I think you answer that pretty clearly, that you don't think it is.

O'NEILL: Well, I don't know. I think it's difficult. We are, you know - the human beings aren't designed to be hermits.

NEARY: And even trying not to do harm, he does do harm at times.

O'NEILL: Well, of course. Well, everybody does harm. The average, you know, person here wakes up in the morning and is complicit in in this sort of suffering of millions, of thousands of people around the world.

I mean, every time you buy something, you know, packaged goods or anything, or carbon footprints, you name it. I mean, it's impossible to not live without contributing to, sort of, pain and suffering somewhere else.

And I suppose that - I mean, one of the things that interested me is that our whole idea of ethics is, you know, an ancient but rather small one, which is to sort of love your neighbor. That's the basis of Western ethics. And it's becoming extremely difficult in the globalized world where everyone is one's neighbor to just, to know how to function ethically.

I mean, you pick up the newspaper now, and you see about, you know, people in difficulty all over the world. And you say, well, what can I do to help these people, and how can I - where does the claim on one's conscience end?

Most of us, of course, aren't troubled by that. We sort of are pragmatic about that sort of stuff and get on through the day. But this particular character is unfortunate in that he sort of takes this whole business of trying to do the right thing rather seriously, and it does him no good at all.

NEARY: Do you see this character as being sort of part of a long line of existential characters, people confronting the modern world and just not knowing what they can do about it and what their choices might be, and ending up in almost comically absurd situations?

O'NEILL: Yeah. I think - well, now that you say it - if you put it that way, I'd say, yes, I would.

NEARY: (Laughter).

O'NEILL: Absolutely. I do think that, I mean, as I write, myself, I'm a very early example of the kind of globalized individual, I suppose. I was born in Ireland. My father's Irish. My mother's Turkish. And I spent my whole life growing up in places where I wasn't the same as everyone else.

Anyway, as a result of my own personal story and experiences, I feel I am - I have no option but to sort of think about the way the world is changing. And I do feel that it's one of the great and developing questions of our time which should be sort of tackled by writing.

As to what on earth we're supposed to do in a world in which the idea of the nation as a sort of focus of community has been so undermined by corporate entities and also by the sheer fact of the Internet and the flow of information, as well as the flow of money. I do feel that that's a very, very big issue.

NEARY: Joseph O'Neill. His new book is "The Dog." Thanks so much for joining us.

O'NEILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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