Linguistics professor Paul Iverson's life is turned upside-down when the body of his young wife Lexy is found beneath their backyard apple tree. Did she fall or did she jump? Only Lorelei, family dog and sole witness to the tragedy, knows for sure. And she's not talking. Yet.
Carolyn Parkhurst's inventive debut novel, The Dogs of Babel, traces the bereaved widower's sometimes bizarre, sometimes touching efforts to teach the King's English to his baffled canine in a desperate attempt to solve the mystery of his wife's death.
In its theme, plot and occasional, uncomfortably gruesome detail, The Dogs of Babel bears some similarity to last year's most audacious exploration of grief, The Lovely Bones. One might even call this The Lovely Dog Bones.
"There's a real issue of getting readers to suspend their belief when your premise is a man who is trying to teach his dog to talk. That might be a hard thing for readers to buy," Parkhurst admits by phone from her home in Washington, D.C. "My hope is that, as you learn more about Paul and what he's like, it's believable that he might follow this unlikely course."
Paul has reason to suspect suicide: Lexy apparently cooked a steak for the dog not long before inexplicably climbing the tree. Later, Paul's bookshelf is rearranged in an apparent rebus from beyond the pale, and Lexy's voice turns up on a television ad for a psychic hotline, desperately seeking succor.
"The book is narrated by Paul, so everything we learn about Lexy is filtered through his perception of her," Parkhurst explains. "In the beginning, he's in this state of fresh grief and he so idealizes her that we don't really get an accurate picture until a little later in the book when we start to see some of the more troubling aspects of her personality and both the good and bad parts of their relationship. It begs the question: How well do we ever know another person, and when that person is gone, how do we piece together what they were really like?"
Paul's journey is a perilous one. As an academic, he seeks scientific answers, even as his research with Lorelei makes him the biggest joke on campus. More troubling, his quest leads him to a group of nutcases called the Cerberus Society who attempt to make dogs talk by altering their anatomy through grisly amateur surgery.
That grim detour was particularly difficult for Parkhurst, who lost her own dog Chelsea midway through the two-year process of writing of the book.
"The only reason I put it in there is it's almost the logical extreme of what might happen if you took Paul's ideas all the way, if you put them in the hands of someone who was truly crazy instead of just off-balance with grief. I hope people don't get too upset by that," she says.
Lexy's avocation as a mask maker serves as a leitmotif throughout the tale. On their first date, Lexy drags Paul to a masquerade wedding; later, she develops a morbid fascination with death when she is hired to make masks of the recently deceased. "I collect masks and find them very interesting," Parkhurst admits. "It works well with Paul thinking about Lexy after she's gone and wondering how much of the time she was wearing a mask and how much of the time she was revealing her true self."
Parkhurst, who holds a Master of Fine Arts in fiction from American University, had written only short stories prior to jumping into the novel. Her own fear of losing loved ones, which sparked the central story, was heightened when she became pregnant with her first child midway into the manuscript.
"I had a lot of fears about becoming a parent, which I think is normal," she recalls. "You start to say, am I really allowed to do this? Am I going to screw up this kid in some way I can't even imagine yet? I took those feelings and amplified them in Lexy. "Some of the book's more fruitful ideas came to the author while she was goofing off.
"I actually find procrastination to be a fairly useful tool for me," she chuckles. "For instance, the phone psychic. I was supposed to be writing one day and I wasn't, I was watching the Game Show Network or something, and there was this ad for a telephone psychic with all these voices on the commercial telling the psychic their problems. And I thought, what if Paul was watching this and out came Lexy's voice?"
The idea of teaching dogs to talk came from a tongue-in-cheek fictional account of such "pioneering research" that Parkhurst had written years earlier.
"I think every dog owner has wondered, what is my dog thinking? What do they make of what they observe about my life? I wish it were true that we could talk and find out what they're thinking, but I don't think it's ever going to happen," Parkhurst says.
By book's end, Paul does establish a communication of sorts with Lorelei that allows him to get on with his life. It's an uplifting ending that draws unmistakable parallels between his feelings for Lexy and the unconditional love of man's best friend.
"I think Paul's love for Lexy is a little bit less complicated than Lexy's love for Paul, in the same way that you feel like a dog's love for you is uncomplicated; they will love you no matter what. There certainly is an element of that in Paul's feelings for Lexy, but part of his struggle is coming to terms with all of the parts of her personality. There is great richness that she brought to his life, but there were also some very difficult times that he had with her. He's trying to figure out how to put it all together."
Jay MacDonald lives and writes in Oxford, Mississippi.