Thursday, September 19, 2013

Richard Adams, The Plague Dogs (1977)

So I reread Watership Down recently.  Actually, "reread" might be the wrong word; my dad read it to me several times when I was small, but I don't think I ever read it myself.  But in any event, it had made a strong impression on me, and I wanted to know: does this hold up?  Is it as good as I remember it being?

Answer: Oh FUCK YES it does and is.  You can pick small nits here and there, but the fact remains that Watership Down is an utterly timeless classic for everyone.  I daresay the only people who dislike it are assholes and, well, idiots.  I know that sounds overly judgmental and categorical, but go ahead--look through the negative amazon reviews and try to find one that even has the superficial appearance of being cogent.  You can't do it, my friends.  You can, however, find any number that say "lol it's about dumb bunnies that's so retarded."  I mean‚Ķreally, now.

So yeah, Watership Down is great, and I was filled with the desire to read more from Adams in a similar vein.  Tales from Watership Down is not a book we discuss in polite company, but there was always this here Plague Dogs--most likely his second-best-known novel, albeit a distant second.  Given #1's reputation, It's not surprising that Adams' publisher should declare it "the true successor to Watership Down!" but it's also wildly misleading and possibly somewhat irresponsible--in spite of a few sections that might be a bit intense for small children (if you've read it, you know the ones), you can easily read the earlier book to your kids, but The Plague Dogs is emphatically not a children's novel, and if you try that stunt, they will likely be alternatively bored, confused, and traumatized.

So the idea is that there's this animal testing facility in England's Lake District, Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental (check the acronym--you would never have seen anything this "zany" in Watership Down).  If the novel has one overarching theme, it's humankind's treatment of animals.  Some people might object to the depiction of this facility--say that Adams is painting with too broad of a brush or being misleading about the nature of animal testing.  It's true that he stacks the deck here: we're not talking about experiments to cure cancer or anything like that; this is more Dr-Mengele-type stuff--ie, "let's do horrible things to these animals so we can see the results of horrible things--scientifically!"  In response to that I would say that, first, as Adams notes in his preface, all of the experimentation he depicts is stuff that has actually happened.  He's not making any of it up.  

And second, I would say, are you really trying to tell me that you think we--by which I mean humans as a species--have really grappled adequately with the question of animal rights?  Let's face it: in America, at least, and probably throughout the developed world, those of us who aren't strict vegans are implicated very deeply in mind-bendingly horrific mechanisms of death.  Maybe this is inevitable, or at least inevitable in a world of seven-billion-plus people, but as a society, we certainly never do any kind of honest reckoning about whether this is actually true, or what we could or should, at the very least, do to ameliorate the situation.  Obviously, ARSE is to a large extent symbolic; you would be unlikely to find one, single facility devoted exclusively to horrible things for their own sake.  But it seems to me that saying, HEY!  This isn't LITERALLY the way things are! only serves to absolve us, quite undeservedly, from blame.  The larger question of our relationship to animals remains important and unresolved.  And in any case, though you wouldn't suspect it, the book does inject a hint of nuance towards the end.

ANYWAY.  The title characters are Rowf (a big black mutt) and Snitter (a fox terrier), dogs who escape from the facility.  Rowf had been subject to experiments in which he was immersed in water for increasingly long periods, in order to discover‚Ķhmm; whereas Snitter had had experimental brain surgery that left him unable to differentiate between his own disordered mental state and the exterior world (the psychology here is certainly more ambitious than anything in Watership Down), and gives him occasional visions.  Compare him to Fiver if you must.

One of the many impressive things about Watership Down is the extent to which the rabbits really are other than human.  They're not just people in fur suits.  Obviously, Adams has to fudge this to a large extent; these are, after all, rabbits who can talk to each other and engage in strategic planning and tell folktales.  If they weren't, the story wouldn't function.  But they really do have a dramatically different relationship to their environment than humans do, there are sundry seemingly simple concepts that they are incapable of grasping, and their attitudes towards things like sex and death are decidedly different than our own.  Happily, The Plague Dogs is equally impressive in this regard.  Being domestic animals, Rowf and Snitter basically see humans as the center of the universe.  When they first escape from the facility and find themselves in the wilderness, their first thought is, holy shit, why did the humans take away all the houses and streets?  What's going on here?  When Rowf sees bodies of water, he immediately assumes they're larger "tanks" of the sort that he had been submerged in.  Above all else, they just want to have "masters," in spite of all the abuse they've suffered.  Snitter, having been a pet before being sold to ARSE after an accident, is the more optimistic about this, whereas Rowf, never having known any other life, is less so--and yet, they both feel that they need humans.  Their confusion and uncertainty are very well-documented and heartbreaking.  For a good chunk of the narrative, they take up with a fox (who lacks a name and is referred to only as "the tod"--and whose thick Geordie dialect, if the amazon review are anything to go by, has turned a number of people off the book entirely), showing us the dramatic contrast between wild and domestic animals (though in truth, the tod's story seems underdeveloped, and it's ultimately cut out rather abruptly).

While they're wandering through the wilderness, just trying to survive, we also have the novel's humans.  Remember how in Watership Down there was the one chapter near the end from a human perspective, and it felt sort of out-of-place?  Well, there's none of that here, because probably a good half of the book is like that.  You have the scientists at the lab and various government officials desperately trying to figure out how to spin the escape (clashing with farmers who are disgruntled that the elusive dogs are killing their sheep), and you have a yellow journalist trying to figure out how best to hype the escape (and who ultimately comes up with the notion that the dogs may be carriers of bubonic plague).  There's a lot of satire, much of it fairly broad.

Actually, truth be told, the whole book feels kind of oddly plotted.  There's a whole lot of dashing around, but very little actual narrative movement.  The dogs travel hither and yon, but they aren't really after anything aside from food and general survival and maybe perhaps in the future people who will be kind to them.  There are a number of maps tracing their routes at various points, but these are pretty meaningless.  There isn't the same sense of clear goals that you find in Watership Down.  Adams' descriptions of the wilderness are vivid, however.

Truth is, it took me a while to sort of figure out what the hell the deal was with this book and really get into it.  But then, I did.  The dogs' travails create real pathos, and their friendship is moving.  The human sections become more interesting as the book goes along too, and there's even a bit of nuance (one of the researchers is revealed to have sympathetic context and motives; the unscrupulous journalist becomes semi-sympathetic).  It's not the kind of book that, like Watership Down, you'll want to read over and over, but it's very good in its own right.  Given the greatness of his literary debut, it's really no surprise that Adams is more or less known as a one-hit wonder, but on the evidence of The Plague Dogs, that doesn't seem to be deserved.

Oh, and finally, I should note: THERE IS A HAPPY ENDING.  Maybe that's a spoiler, but really, the book would just be unreadably depressing otherwise, so I thought I'd just throw it out there.


Anonymous Mizzkateinsf pontificated to the effect that...

Enjoyed your review, especially as regards the fundamental wrongness of people who don't like Watership Down! ;)
(Btw, there's an excellent audiobook version by Blackstone Audio).
Anyway, just finished The Plague Dogs, and so I am scouring the internet for opinions. My internet search was Plague Dogs novel ending... I don't know why, but I almost felt let down by the happy ending. I liked it, certainly. But I appreciated, too, the way Adams framed it... that it's almost a fan-service ending. (Hey, if it was good enough for Dickens...) Anyway, I enjoyed the tone and intelligence of your review. Thanks for posting it!

2:59 AM  

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