Teaching the Dog to Read: A surreal trip

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Teaching the Dog to Read by Jonathan Carroll speculative fiction book reviewsTeaching the Dog to Read by Jonathan Carroll

Anthony Areal, a forgettable, average man, trending toward wet noodle, is astonished one day to receive an anonymous gift in the mail containing the watch of his dreams: a gorgeous $9,000 Lichtenberg ‘Figure’ wristwatch. For a few minutes he’s afraid it is a dream: the watch will probably disappear or turn into a pumpkin when he touches it. But the watch stays on Tony’s arm when he puts it there, and it’s followed a week later by his fantasy car, an $80,000 gray Porsche Cayman GTS, registered in his name. Tony is delighted. His co-workers are astounded. Lena Schabort, the office temptress, suddenly reevaluates Tony’s worth, personal as well as net.

When Tony meets his benefactor, it is the “night shift” version of Tony himself, who lives in Tony’s dreams and can in some measure actually direct and control those dreams, making them become reality. Tony Night offers to switch places with Tony Day, who decides to go for the deal. Tony Day enters his dream world, where he can live out all of his fantasies but still gets random surprises like a stampede of rhinos and bull terriers, his very favorite animals, charging down the road past him. Tony Night, filled with the kind of self-confidence that makes a person attractive, begins an affair with Lena. Everything seems fantastic for both Tonys, as they meet from time to time and compare notes. But the deal doesn’t work out the way either of them intended … although not at all for the reasons I expected.

Teaching the Dog to Read, where dreams collide with reality, is engaging and highly imaginative. The meticulously crafted Lichtenberg watch, with its black face, white numerals and hands, and deep red oxblood watchband, is so vividly described that I went on Google to see if it’s a real brand (sadly, it is not, although the Porsche Cayman GTS is). And Tony’s reaction to this gift, as well as all of the other surprising events in this story, is realistic and often heartwarming.

Equally intriguing is the developing relationship between Tony Night and Lena, who begin as a fling but, rather surprisingly, develop into something more meaningful.

A small detail, trivial, that blossoms in an instant into the most important thing in your life. That innocent hand on the knee sealed the deal. Our mistake is to think love makes sense when much of the time it is, for better or worse, the most irrational thing we experience. Sometimes the biggest loves rise out of the shadows of our emotions like ghosts right in our face, but instead of hooting Boo! they say Now! Them!

The effect of their relationship on both Lena and Tony, and its repercussions, is even more unexpected. Jonathan Carroll seems to be suggesting that a deep love can recreate us, saving us but profoundly changing us at the same time.

Teaching the Dog to Read is an odd but engaging novella, very much like a surreal dream, often skewed in its logic, and in the way of some dreams it doubled down on the absurdity in the final pages. I read the entire novella twice to see if I could make any better sense of its ending with a second read. I’m not sure I did; it’s pretty weird and introduces a couple of new and substantial elements without having given them much prior foundation or foreshadowing. But I came away convinced that Carroll is gifted with both insight and imagination, even if I thought he should have reined it in just a little there at the end.

It’s entirely fitting that Tony’s last name is Areal, suggesting the antithesis of what is real. Shakespeare, in The Tempest, wrote “We are such stuff / As dreams are made of.” At least in Tony’s case, that seems to be true. I’m not certain that I feel more unreal for having read this, but it might make me view any expensive, anonymous presents in the future with a little extra suspicion. Anyone wishing to throw me off balance with diamond jewelry is welcome to give it a try.

Published by Subterranean Press in 2014. Since the appearance of his first novel, The Land of Laughs, in 1980, Jonathan Carroll has been one of the most compelling, consistently versatile storytellers in modern imaginative literature. His extraordinary new novella, Teaching the Dog to Read, is quintessential Carroll: surprising, funny, and filled with unexpected moments and astonishing revelations. The story opens when mid-level office drone Tony Areal receives an extravagant gift: the Lichtenberg wristwatch he has always coveted. Shortly afterward, he receives an even grander gift: the luxurious—and expensive—Porsche Cayman that has always been the car of his dreams. Accompanying the car is the mysterious Alice, who knows more about Tony’s dreams and desires than Tony himself. This encounter opens the door to a rich and unexpected universe: the world behind the world. Teaching the Dog to Read is set at the intersection of the mundane and the miraculous, a place where reality itself shifts and shimmers with disconcerting suddenness. It begins in the realm of recognizable things and ends in a hospital room where a bizarre—and invisible—reunion takes place. Along the way, it offers both grand entertainment and a visionary meditation on the complex connections between our dreaming and waking selves. The result is a master class in the art of narrative and a permanent addition to Jonathan Carroll’s remarkable body of work.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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8 comments

  1. You make this sound wonderful! And that cover grabs me and freaks me out at the same time.

  2. Bryan G. /

    Wow. That cover!

  3. I know, that cover is bizarre! It fits the story very well, in fact.

  4. Someone sent this to me and it made me smile. Thank you for the good words.

    Jonathan Carroll
    http://www.jonathancarroll.com

    • Thank you too, Jonathan! Karen Brisette and I were having a conversation yesterday on Goodreads about your work yesterday, in the thread attached to her review of this book. We agreed that it was a tragedy that I can’t find any of your books in the local library system. She suggested that I move.

  5. I’m glad to see there are audio versions of Land of Laughs, Voice of Our Shadow, and Outside the Dog Museum, though I wish there were more.

  6. I want to read this. I own several audiobooks of Jonathan Carroll’s work, but haven’t read a single one yet. You make me want to read one of them soon.

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