Even the Toothbrush Has More than Two Paths: An Interview with Joseph O’Neill

ONE AFTERNOON in late June, we met Joseph O’Neill at a tin-ceilinged Italian restaurant close to his home near the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan. It is the kind of formerly run-down neighborhood described in his new novel, The Dog, where the narrator, X., briefly lives “in a luxury rental with a view of Lincoln Tunnel traffic” before moving to Dubai, where the bulk of the novel is set. A lawyer who has just left his long-term girlfriend, X. takes a job there working for the fabulously wealthy Batros family and settles into a strange and troubling expatriate existence.

O’Neill was born in Ireland in 1964; grew up in Mozambique, Turkey, Iran, and the Netherlands; and worked as a barrister in London for over 10 years. He is the author of three novels: This is the Life (1991), The Breezes (1996), and Netherland (2008), one of the very few books about cricket to be a bestseller in the USA. His nonfiction book, Blood-Dark Track: A Family History (2001), tells of his investigations into his Irish and Turkish grandfathers’ internments during World War II. Pantheon Books published The Dog early this month.

While we spoke, a World Cup match between Algeria and South Korea was playing on a television in the corner of the dining room.

— Matthew Hart and Nico Israel


NICO ISRAEL: Early in The Dog, the narrator describes Dubai as an “abracadabrapolis” marketed at an international cadre of so called “high-net-worth individuals” who drive insanely expensive cars, eat grotesque hotel brunches, and electronically shuffle money around the globe. What attracted you to Dubai and when did you first think of setting your novel there?

JOSEPH O’NEILL: I enjoy eavesdropping, and from around 2007, maybe earlier, I kept overhearing people, English people especially, talking about Dubai — about going there on holiday, or making money there, or dreaming of going. This was before the financial crisis. Eventually I googled Dubai and, like the narrator, X., I was confronted with extraordinary photographic renderings of an imaginary or real desert city, it was hard to tell which. It was like something out of [Italo Calvino’s] Invisible Cities. Incredible projects were underway or under serious discussion: an underwater hotel, a kilometer-high tower, a park in a cloud. What really hooked me, though, were certain social and economic facts. It turns out that Dubai embraces a kind of capitalistic apartheid: over 80 percent of its population consists of foreigners with no permanent rights of residence and no prospect of citizenship, even for their children or grandchildren. Their presence is absolutely contingent on, and coterminous with, their function as workers. This obviously has all kinds of implications and resonances. Dubai isn’t a freak show: it’s us, too. So I thought there had to be an interesting story in there somewhere, especially for a writer like me, who has no home turf; and I decided to set my novel in the UAE before I set foot there. In due course, I physically visited the place — twice, for about 10 days at a time — and of course it got even more interesting.

MATTHEW HART: What do you mean when you say Dubai is “us, too”? I mean, I feel like you could make that claim about anyplace plugged into the circuits of global capitalism — Singapore, Mumbai, Cape Town? But Dubai in The Dog is very clearly its own weird island, too. Your expats, for instance, obsess about the ways in which the Emirate epitomizes Western norms but remains exceptional to them, too. I’m thinking here of the Dubai International Finance Center (DIFC), which is central to Dubai’s economic success but which is also a kind of free zone within Emirati space, a zone of English common law inside the city-state. Am I right to see this kind of inside/outside logic as representative of Dubai as a whole?

I suppose I’m questioning the tendency, which I think dominates Western ideas of the non-Western, to see Dubai — and Singapore, Macau, Kuala Lumpur, etc. — as very different from New York, Manchester, etc., and different in a way that exculpates “us” and inculpates “them.” Dubai markets itself as an outlier, as a state of exception, if you will, and “we” seize on this in order to view Dubai’s horrors/drawbacks as a special case, normatively speaking, and peculiar to it, Dubai, and in no way reflective of “us.”

Yes, the DIFC is interesting, isn’t it? As you say, it’s a satellite jurisdiction of Dubai, created for the specific purpose of enabling the mercantile or commercial elite, which is of course global, to work in and out of Dubai while simultaneously floating above the archaic Dubaian legal system. In this sense, Dubai tries to have it both ways — and why not? Why not transcend the either/or? This transcendence may be a kind of post-enlightenment dream — the win-win-win promised by technology and technical knowledge. Certainly X., who has his office there, sees the DIFC as a dream of a productive and borderless financial nationality.

NI: Speaking of the peculiar logic of “us,” there are a couple of lovely references in your novel to Conrad’s Lord Jim — in its own way a novel about an early form of the global capitalism you were just describing. The narrator of The Dog briefly wishes his disappeared friend Ted Wilson would become a kind of Tuan Jim, going from port to port in the East, only to acknowledge that those very ports are no longer quiet colonial run-down towns but now roaring global cities. Dubai itself was built around a port, but rather than a seaport, it’s an international airport, which was in fact the main component in building brand Dubai. Many scenes in the novel revolve around this airport. What makes it so emblematic of what you’re trying to evoke?

Let me answer that in a boringly evasive way: I’m not sure what the airport stuff in The Dog emblematizes or what it is I’m trying to evoke, because I try to do fiction-writing without that kind of purposiveness. I try not to be a communicator-author. Writing fiction is just an elaborate way of putting to death, or maybe chloroforming into limpness, my ideas about the world, which is to say hearsay I find truthful or agreeable. This isn’t to suggest that the ideal novelist is an airhead, but that a successful fiction fully absorbs and digests its conceptual materials and embodies its own idea. There’s a basic reason for writing a novel — as a respite from the ideas business, which includes the business of being learned or up-to-speed or opinionated. Having said all that, this novel obviously concerns itself with the aviation world, and Dubai airport is huge, incredibly busy, and in every sense unavoidable, and definitely worth investigating, and The Dog goes there for sure.

MH: So, then, thinking of what might be symbols or might be red herrings, what about the narrator’s name? He’s called “X.” Now, we know that’s the initial of his first name — he’s not just “Mr. X” or whatever. But X. also withholds his full name, because it’s embarrassing, so some part of that “X” remains mysterious or untethered.

Right. “X.” is the initial of an actual name, not a symbonym; and the reader finds out why this is so. The Dog isn’t one of those novels in which characters are labeled X and Y and Z. Which isn’t to say that I’m an opponent of such novels, by the way.

MH: Okay, but that just begs the question! Why “X” and not “D” or “R”? Why not “Xavier” or “Xerxes”?

X.’s embarrassing first name is long dormant, indeed a secret, until to his horror it’s brought to light by a busybody at his law firm, who adds the first initial to his professional name — you know, like T. Boone Pickens or J. Edgar Hoover. (His ex, Jenn, also thinks she has a bad name, and goes by Jennifer even though her name is Jenn.) The question of what might be a good name has thematic and plot ramifications I don’t want to go into here. Plot twists are pretty thin on the ground in The Dog.

NI: You mentioned earlier about the way you approach writing fiction without purposiveness. Still, although the tone is blackly comedic, there is throughout the novel an engagement with the question of how one can behave ethically today. X. considers his ethical responsibility to his undocumented Arab employee, to his ex-girlfriend, even to performers in different genres of porn movies. But he also devises elaborate disclaimers to stamp onto work documents he signs, trying to absolve himself of any real responsibility. X. seems to want to acknowledge the desire for an ethical life, opines at length about it, but not genuinely to take responsibility for his actions. Can you speak about this?

Is it possible to write about ethics without black humor? … X., a sensitive soul, feels under enormous ethical stress. First of all, the globalization of information means that he’s exposed to borderless and infinite claims on his sympathies and resources — a huge question, in my view. Second, he’s got this job as the Family Officer for the ultra-rich Batros family, a highly problematic position that may or may not involve him in corporate wrongdoing that’s just beyond his peripheral vision. Third, because he’s in Dubai, he’s directly exposed to the plight of the local migrant laborers, who are visible almost every time he looks out of the window, working in the heat and submitting, in a dramatic and extreme way, to the host state’s biopower, as Agamben might say. Fourth, he’s a human being. It’s a lot to handle.

NI: You mention Agamben, but there are other philosophers discussed or invoked in the novel as well. The word “situation” comes up often in The Dog. It’s the hilarious solecistic name of the luxury condominium building in Dubai where the narrator lives; X. also speaks of the “situation” of South Asian construction workers and describes his involvement with Arab women in Dubai as a “situation governed by mutual avoidance.” The epigraph to the text is from Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, in which text Kierkegaard discusses the necessity of choosing what one is actually doing, rather than just responding to a situation. Can you talk about how The Dog’s ethical drama draws on your philosophical or theoretical reading?

After Netherland, I found myself reading a lot of theory, which for some reason struck me as powerful and interesting fiction. Nietzsche has asserted that everything that can be thought is almost certainly a fiction, so maybe that’s it. In any case, I started to read (in some cases re-read) Levinas, Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, the usual crowd, Agamben, and reading them as an amateur, without ever feeling that it was my responsibility to “understand” them or to accept or reject their writing’s truth content, whatever that might be. I read for the prose and for the comic drama of the theorist — this grandiose, inevitably masculine figure who believes he can figure it all out. They all struck me as variants of Moses Herzog — the Bellow male who takes the Enlightenment at face value, i.e., much too seriously for his own good, and who has got it into his head that reflection is doable and worth the effort. Wittgenstein, for example, is a tremendously emotional writer, for all his numbered paragraphs. My favorite, though, has to be poor old Adorno. “Adorno” means the writing of Adorno, by the way, and the persona of the writing. The biographical doesn’t really interest me. Anyhow, out of this reading came the searching, somewhat ridiculous voice of The Dog.

MH: So you’re interested in theory for the style as much as for the theory itself? X. is full of phrases like “spatial realism” and “room theory” and “the stockade of the literal.” He gets an SMS from a prostitute and refers to “the text of her text.”

To be interested in theory is almost the same thing, for me, as to be interested in the style or rhetoric of the theory. How could it be otherwise? And although I’m often persuaded or interested by a theoretical proposition, insofar as I think I may have grasped its “meaning,” I wouldn’t try to write fiction that serves as a vehicle for that proposition. I don’t quite see the point, formally speaking, of a novel that aspires to this vehicular kind of “meaning.” It might be different if I were trying to write theory, although even the realm of theory, it seems to me, increasingly resembles that of poetry.

NI: One of the most memorable moments in Netherland came toward the end of the novel, when the narrator described locating his children via Google Earth, which was then (in 2008) a fresh, new technology. Similarly, The Dog exposes the effects of contemporary googleable and wikiable life in a way that seems really fresh and subtle. X. spends a lot of this novel surfing the web, devising emails he will never send, Facebooking his ex-wife, searching electronically for his lost friend Ted and Ted’s two wives. The resulting narrative form is a kind of one-way epistolarity. This is a textual landscape in which almost everything is googleable, and consequently there is no privacy, or rather there is a new kind of privacy, one more associated with loneliness and obsessiveness.

I like that idea of one-way epistolarity. You’re right, it’s getting to be a very big thing. The comment thread, the Facebook page, etc., where you leave a pronouncement and then wait to see if this unilateral communication becomes bilateral or even multilateral. X. isn’t into this. He’s not into publicity, in the strict sense. He’s very much a privacy guy. Part of his tragicomedy is that his privacy is grotesquely undermined by his very thought processes. He cannot help observing himself as he takes a shit or goes online to jerk off — and we in turn are privy to his thoughts. The result is shame all around — for the character, the narrator, the reader.

NI: Related to this question of information glut — and maybe shame too: in this novel you elevate the parentheses to an art form. Granted, X. is an attorney, so the kind of multiply parenthetical sentences seem to flow from him, but the subordinated information — there are, I think, five or six end parentheses at one point — seems emblematic of the contingent nature of action and thought in this novel. It is a way a subordinated character expresses subordinated information.

Yeah, there are lots of parentheses. I like calling the parenthetical material “subordinated information.” It suggests this kind of power struggle between the statements, with the inferior, parenthetical statements rising up against their unparenthesized superiors. [Flann O’Brien’s]The Third Policeman does something like that, although there it’s the footnotes that are the rebellious verbal underlings.

MH: So for you the language between parentheses is rebellious? How does that square with X.’s hypercorrective, periphrastic manner? What wins out for you with X., at the level of his voice — some kind of freedom or something more like subordination in a negative sense?

Don’t ask me, ask Nico! He’s the one who came up with the subordination idea. I was just running with it.

The parenthesized language has multiple functions, not all of them periphrastic. I’m sure X. would object to you calling him a periphraser or circumlocutor, by the way. He would say that he’s just trying to be accurate or as not-incorrect as he can.

MH: I want to ask a question that you might find tedious. It’s about the way Zadie Smith characterized Netherland in her “Two Paths for the Novel” essay, contrasting it with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. There were times in reading The Dog when I started to think you were deliberately playing with the rhetoric and thematics of the avant-garde novel, only from within what Smith called “lyrical realism.” I’m thinking about what you’ve already said about theory and style. Or about such moments as when X. says he has “long had [his] suspicions about the escape to figuration — the flight to metaphoric representation of which I’m so often guilty.” At these points, the novel starts to feel distinctly metafictional. Am I just being the worst sort of academic critic here or were you trying, at any level, to respond to the idea of there being “two paths” for the contemporary novel?

Well, I have the usual tedious reservations about the often-useful term “metafiction.” I mean, every fiction bears a formal relation to itself, and I very much doubt that there’s a threshold which, if crossed, transforms what would otherwise be purely fictional into something metafictional, or vice versa. A “fictional” text is an artificial, structurally ironic thing and always has been; and every fiction-writer knows this and proceeds from this knowledge. Netherland and The Dog were written in this way, as they had to be.

The extent to which these novels are, or aren’t, detained by the fact of their artificial existence or their artificial processes is a function not of my preexisting, extra-creative preoccupation with theories of how the novel should be, but, rather, a function of the demands made by the language-thing that I’m making, demands that relate to its well-being as a thing-of-language. The question of what constitutes such well-being is a mysterious and complex one that can’t be answered, I would say, by references to the novel having two paths. I mean, even the toothbrush has more than two paths.


Nico Israel is an associate professor of English literature at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Matthew Hart teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.




Feed Your HeadSubscribe to LARB's FREE Newsletter