July 2003

Jessa Crispin

fiction

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Dogs of Babel is already being hailed as this year's The Lovely Bones. It's not a preposterous comparison as both books deal with the death of a loved one and the grief process. But to pair these books together is unfair to Carolyn Parkhurst. Where The Lovely Bones used a sledgehammer to get its point across, The Dogs of Babel is as precise as a razor blade. While The Lovely Bones attempted to soothe mourners with cheap, cloying sentimentality, The Dogs of Babel gets to the real heart of grief. There is no loved one looking down from heaven, no reassurances that we will all meet again in the afterlife. There is simply a man and the empty half of his bed.

Peter Iverson lost his wife Lexy in what seems to be a bizarre accident. Her body was discovered at the foot of their thirty-foot apple tree. She had never climbed the tree before, and there didn't seem to be any reason for her to do so now. Suicide was raised by the police, but as they tell Peter, with a jumper "the particular way her bones break, the way her ankles and knees shatter from the stress of the impact, lets us know the jump was intentional." The injuries to Lexy's body suggest a loss of control. An accident. Peter will not be satisfied with the police's conclusion until he finds out why she climbed the tree. He begins to painstakingly examine every detail of Lexy's last day. She fried a steak, but there were no dirty plates. He checks to see if perhaps she washed her plate, but the dishtowel is not damp. Did she eat the steak standing up? Why does it seem that the books have been reshelved out of order? The only witness to his wife's death was the dog Lorelei, so Paul must do the sensible thing. He must teach the dog to speak.

Paul is a linguistics professor and uses this latest project as an excuse to take some time off of work, saying he needs to concentrate on his "research." He realizes something very quickly: dogs sleep an awful lot, leaving him alone in the house to remember his wife. The way Parkhurst slowly reveals Lexy's story is masterful and deliberate. In his grief, Paul can only remember Lexy at her very best at the beginning, their first date, how they met, how spontaneous and joyful she seemed. The reader sees Lexy as a carefree spirit from her artwork and her insistence that she and Paul go to Disney World on their first date, even though they live in Virginia. Lexy begins to seem like exactly the type of woman who would climb an apple tree on a whim. It must have been an accident.

But Peter eventually admits that he lied to the police officer when he said Lexy never talked about suicide before. Gradually, the entire truth of who Lexy was emerges. The first admission is that as a teenager, she used to pull out her hair. Then, as a senior, she tried to slash her wrists. Oh, and she also used to have these fits of anger... As Peter is able to deal with who his wife really was, we see a portrait of a woman in the grips of depression. You get the sense that Peter never fully admitted to himself that his wife was depressed, and as it looks more and more likely that Lexy killed herself, the more Peter retreats from the idea, unwilling to accept the responsibility that comes with a loved one's suicide.

In Lexy, Carolyn Parkhurst may have written the most honest account of depression in recent fiction. She did not draw Lexy as crazy, or as a romantic broken thing in need of fixing. It was much more subtle, coming through in her quietest moments. "[W]hatever that fatal elixir is, that mixture of circumstance and temperament that leads a person to the edge of death and sometimes back again, it flowed through Lexy's body like blood." She kept her depression hidden for so long that it eventually manifested itself in violent outbursts of anger and anxiety. As Peter remembers the worst of times, it seems obvious in hindsight what the warning signs are. But coupled with her whimsy and the times when laughter came easily to her, it seems less clear how deep the dark was.

Parkhurst is equally exact with Peter. His grief is a mighty thing and it terrifies him, so he circumambulates it in his attempts to teach Lorelei to talk, his methodical recreation of Lexy's last day, and his sudden addiction to calling phone psychics just so he can prove them wrong. Facing his grief would mean realizing he didn't notice his wife's pain. That's the real tragedy of the book, not so much Lexy's death as Peter's inability to truly see her until after her death.

The book's only misstep involves an organization Peter uncovers in his research. The Cerberus Society was formed to teach dogs to speak, but they use surgical means to help nature along. Everything in the chapters with Cerberus feels forced and unnecessary. It feels so out of place that I have to wonder if it was only added as an artificial way to advance the plot.

And while the symbolism can get a little heavy handed at times - Lexy designs and makes masks for local theater productions; Lexy is depressed but mostly shows a happy face to the world - the tone of the book is almost always perfect. While Peter is in the midst of his research, everything is much lighter. The tests with Lorelei add much needed humor into the book, but it can all come crashing down with a sudden memory or a misspoken word. But that's how grief is. It has ups and downs, and sometimes the person you thought you were living with was someone completely different. I hope that The Dogs of Babel has all of the success of The Lovely Bones. It truly deserves it.

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
Little, Brown
ISBN: 0316168688
264 Pages