September 15, 2010

Tales from the Completist: "Lives of the Monster Dogs," by Kirsten Bakis

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kirsten Bakis

Lives of the Monster Dogs (1997)
By Kirsten Bakis

One of the sincerely biggest pleasures for me of being a book critic is to hear from the authors of the books I review, letting me know of the various ways they feel I got my analyses of their manuscripts right (and sometimes...er, not); so you can imagine my delighted surprise, then, when hearing out of the blue earlier this year from novelist Kirsten Bakis, thanking me for a long and detailed look I did back in the 1990s of her first and so far only book, the exquisite modern goth fever-dream tale Lives of the Monster Dogs, which turned out to be one of my favorite reads of that entire decade. But see, I'm embarrassed now of that write-up -- I did it long before opening CCLaP, back when I was a creative writer myself and only penned a handful of nonfiction pieces a year, and like many artists in their twenties in the 1990s I was going at the time through a bad David Foster Wallace, Insert Your Personal Life Too Much Into Your Critical Essays, And Make Sure To Include Lots Of Superfluous Postmodernist Footnotes phase, and while Bakis's lovely email inspired me to want to talk about her remarkable book again, I cringed every time I thought of dragging that old terrible '90s review I did back into public sunlight.

So I decided to do something a lot more sensible instead, which was simply read the novel again, for the fourth time total and the first time in years, and do a brand-new write-up based on how it struck me this time; and I have to say, I'm glad I did, because this almost perfect genre tale still holds up as the mindblowing industry changer it was greeted as when first coming out in 1997, and it was a real pleasure to get lost again in Bakis's deeply strange and proto-steampunk world. Because for those who don't know, the title is rather a literal one; the novel is in fact about a race of super-dogs that are created from the original work of a mad scientist from Victorian-Age Bavaria, only with his work never perfected until the early 2000s, long after his death. And so this makes the story a fussy Victorian fantastical tale and a modern urban fantasy at the same time, a look at what happens when this race of talking, intelligent, surgically enhanced oversized dogs actually move to New York and announce themselves to the world, while also being an epistolary look back at this mad scientist, one Augustus Rank, and all the steps in the late 1800s that led to him coming up with this idea in the first place.

Or, well, the book's actually a lot more than this as well, which is what got it so much attention in the first place, right in the same years that Donna Tartt's The Secret History was exploring the same general territory; written by an award-winning academic author during her years at the Iowa Writers Workshop (and indeed, this novel won several awards too, including the Stoker Award for Best First Novel, plus made the short list of that year's Orange Prize), Monster Dogs is also a look at the century Rank and his followers hid themselves away in a secret closed-off community in rural Canada, modeling themselves after the turn-of-the-century Prussian society they came from and then promptly cutting off contact with the outside world, which is why these dogs in the 2000s all speak in heavy High German accents and dress in tight-collared military uniforms and the like. And it's also about the terrible night that these successful test specimens, after years of growing into maturity, realize that it's time to overtake their former masters and violently slaughter all the humans in their hidden community, led by a Bible-quoting cur who claimed to be the reincarnated spirit of Rank himself. And it's also about the neo-classical opera that the dogs write in the 2000s to commemorate and explain this violent coup and the years of chaos that came afterwards, a 25-page libretto of which Bakis has faithfully recreated within the novel; and it's also about the elaborate Bavarian castle the dogs decide to build literally at the intersection of Houston and B on Manhattan's Lower East Side, paid for with the bundles of jewels that Rank and his followers slowly embezzled from Kaiser Wilhelm II a century previous, back when this entire project was under imperial supervision in the hopes of creating an army of unstoppable canine soldiers.

Whew, yeah, I know! And in another person's hands, such a ridiculously high level of fancifulness would fall apart very quickly; but that's the remarkable thing about Bakis, is that her natural talent plus years of honing this story makes it all tightly hold together no matter how ludicrous the details get, even when the last third dips into the legitimately disturbing (after the dogs come to realize that they are all slowly going insane, so decide to hold a month-long bacchanal in their Manhattan castle to celebrate their coming mass suicide), even when this last third turns boldly experimental (as we read the tone-poem rantings of one of these semi-insane dog's personal journal). It's really for all these reasons that the novel was treated as a mainstream, general-interest book when it first came out, despite it sounding at first like a story only a fanboy could love; it's because Bakis really is that good a storyteller, that she can manage to make this engaging to professors, suburban moms, and all kinds of other types who never in a million years thought they'd ever get caught up in the machinations of six-foot-tall monocle-sporting Great Danes who have had their front paws surgically replaced with prosthetic human hands.

These days, of course, post-Buffy and post-Lost and post-steampunk, the utter originality of this story doesn't have quite the same impact; but believe me when I say that when it first came out in the '90s, it rather literally blew off the tops of the heads of all my circle of friends and myself, and in fact I think it's fair to say that neither the urban fantasy nor steampunk genres would be quite as rich today without groundbreakers like this one that paved the way. Bakis intimated in her email to me that she might never write another novel again, so let me be the first to bemoan in public what a profound shame this would be; reading it again this month for the first time in half a decade, I was reminded all over again of what a nearly perfect novel it in fact is, and that the literary arts in general could really benefit from another tale with this level of sophistication and sheer beauty again. Here's hoping that Bakis will indeed pull up those bootstraps and crank out another modern classic again; but in the meanwhile, we still have this magnificent first volume, which I highly encourage all my fellow genre fans to devour soon if they never have before.

Read even more about Lives of the Monster Dogs: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:25 AM, September 15, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |