In my 20s, two friends who knew me well, within a month of each other, both recommended that I read Borges. I followed their advice, and what ensued was so transcendently, life-alteringly rewarding that I adopted a new policy. If two or more insightful friends independently recommend an author or a work of fiction, I automatically read it.
But now, having finished Thurston Branch’s Immanuel, at the recommendation of not two, but three friends, I am going to have to discontinue this policy. I cannot risk reading another book like this ever again. Also, fairly or not, I blame Borges for this book’s existence. Until further notice, consider me soured on trippy fiction.
The premise is intriguing: an Australian Shepherd named Immanuel suddenly develops some doglike awareness of the limits of his own canine cognition, and drives himself insane with paranoid self-consciousness.
This much I gathered from the back flap, the only coherent writing I was able to find anywhere in or on this book. Opening it, I found myself trapped inside a postmodern Jack London nightmare of attempted dog-perspective storytelling.
Maybe the problem is that I’ve never been a “dog person”. I’ve spent very little time empathizing with dogs or reflecting on dog psyches. This kind of exercise is probably delightful to that breed of dog owners who imagine their animals having human-like personalities, and interpret their dog’s annoying neuroses as signs of intelligence. (This, is how I account for everyone under the age of forty spontaneously melting into a puddle en masse over this book, despite the fact that they don’t read books. More on this later.) For me, it amounted an excessively lengthy and persuasive demonstration of the truth of Wittgenstein’s aphorism: “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.”
But I made myself read the whole thing. I focused my attention on each of the words in every one of the thousands upon thousands of sentences printed on excess of four hundred densely-set narrow-margin pages. Fans of Immanuel claim that these words and sentences lead a reader through the tragic story of a dog who suffers a philosophical insight, or a dog’s approximation of one. I will rely on what I’ve learned from them to summarize the plot. Immanuel realizes, in some doglike way, that he only experiences a small sliver of what humans experience. He somehow connects this intuition he’s had to human existence. Humans have these sorts on intuitions all the time, he senses, and this is somehow connected to the weird sounds they’re always making. Immanuel is oppressed by this mute, dark and crushing hunch. He is terrified of the vast ocean of intelligibility surrounding him, permanently beyond the paw-grasp of his mind. The poor guy can no longer fart or lick his balls without a sense of being witnessed and known. He becomes immobilized with anxiety. He gets moody, destructive and aggressive. Eventually he stops eating and starves to death ruminating on the unknowable mystery of humankind.
How anyone got this from what Branch wrote, I will never know. I’ve read some gnarly books and wrung at least some sense out of them, but I went dozens — grosses — of pages without encountering a single example of recognizably English syntax. We are invited to join Immanuel in his descent into madness, and at this the author succeeds, but only because it is altogether too easy to sympathize with this dog’s terminal bafflement when you, too, are paralyzed by anxiety at how much you are missing, assuming there is some there to understand. This attempt to render a dog’s inner life produced literally — I’ll say it again — four hundred plus pages of impenetrable babble of mysterious significance, which is a lot of words to evoke a supposedly wordless intuition and its nonlinguistic mental aftermath.
After actually forcing myself read all these words — every one of them, in order — in the misplaced hope of gaining something from it, and instead getting zero, I need justice. I will take my vengeance in the form of a mean-spirited diagnosis: this book’s freakish level of acclaim and our culture’s obsession with dogs share a single root cause. Both book and beast are entirely free of humanity — purged, cleansed, disinfected, liberated. Just as there is not a scrap of human intelligence to be found between your pet dog’s adorable, shaggy doggy ears, there is also none between the covers of this book — and that is precisely the appeal. Because there is no human content, because there is featureless blankness, we are free to invent. We can dispense with the hell that is other people, but without suffering solitary confinement in our own solipsism. We can project our own fantasy content upon it like a screen, and enjoy our own imaginary characters as if they were someone who isn’t us. We can populate the blankness with freely-invented fictional “others” — starting with our dogs, and continuing on to the entire population of the planet. Every living thing we encounter is given the Midas touch and transformed into a concept — image, identity, self, news, brand. We then run our imaginary menagerie of inventions through dramatic scenarios and have overpowering emotional experiences. The passionate emoting we do over the fates of our fictional artifacts is what we call empathy. All from the comfort of our own skulls.
I don’t know. Maybe highlighting this allergy to real-live, independently-existing, stubborn, perplexing, disgusting first-person human beings was what Branch had in mind when he started typing. If that was his intention I salute him. In the future, however I’ll skip the reading part, and just salute him from a distance.