"The Isle of Dogs"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage FEB 25, 2009)
“England is the surveillance capital of the world. There’s now a surveillance camera for every fourteen citizens in this country – and counting. How long before that ratio is one for every ten? One for every five? One for every two? How long before there’s a surveillance camera for each of us? Your own guardian angel. Your own glazed sentinel. Your own private nemesis.”
People often ask me what I’m reading, and so I found myself trying to explain the synopsis of Daniel Davies’s book The Isle of Dogs. The title is an allusion to Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe’s sixteenth century play that was immediately suppressed for its lewd content, but the title is also a reference to the idea that Britain is full of those swept up in a sex hobby. "Dogging" is the British term given to sex acts committed in semi-public places. Participants in dogging can be actually engaged in sex or watching it, so when people asked me what I was reading, I explained that The Isle of Dogs is a book about people who have this sex hobby. The responses I got were, I thought, surprising. Ranging from: “stop it right there,” and “why are you telling me this?” to dirty snickers, evidently people assumed that a) they were in the presence of a pervert, b) they caught me reading a dirty book, or c) they caught a pervert reading a dirty book. It’s curious to me, and this is a rhetorical question, why people don’t imagine that readers of gory serial killer novels are closet slashers, but conclude that those who read books that examine sexual issues, such as The Isle of Dogs must be smut mongers. No matter. I read The Isle of Dogs and enjoyed it.
The novel begins with civil servant, thirty-something Jeremy Shepherd preparing for a rendezvous with a new couple. Dogging is largely arranged through e-mail and text messages and also websites devoted to making connections with other like-minded people for sex. Swinging or plain old orgies are nothing new, but the stakes involved in dogging are incredibly high when taking Britain’s extensive surveillance system CCTV into account. Has dogging sprung up as a response to CCTV? Does the CCTV system raise the stakes and thus make dogging more risky and therefore more exciting? It is, after all, difficult to have anonymous sex in a public place when you’ve got cameras trained on almost every square inch of the country.
At one point, Jeremy (known on the dogging circuit as The Shep (firstname.lastname@example.org), had a high-powered, well-paying job in the hub of London, but one day he experienced a crisis of sorts, packed in his job, sold his flat, and moved back to the country with his retired parents. After securing a boring job as a low-level civil servant, Jeremy began spending his days in a building that “resembles a concrete bomb shelter – or a disused abattoir.” Here with a job that requires little, disassociated from consumerist culture, Jeremy spends a great deal of his work day checking out porn sites, arranging dogging sessions, and connecting with others on the circuit.
Jeremy is a highly organized, practiced dogger. In fact, you could say that he lives for dogging. He even carries a kit with him on his nightly escapades as he engages in various sexual liaisons throughout the novel. Since this is a story about sex, there are graphic descriptions, but author Davies deftly juggles these episodes with literary allusions and questions about the nature of privacy and sexual behaviour. A bleak thread of dark humour runs through the book while Jeremy alternates his mind-numbingly boring work days with adrenaline-pumping nights as he scopes out safe locations for dogging sessions. Meanwhile in Jeremy’s home life, his mother incongruously supplies him with raspberry ice cream, and his parents pester him for crossword puzzle answers--little suspecting (or perhaps deliberately ignoring) clues about his increasingly dangerous social life. Moments of humour pop up when Jeremy encounters a couple of doggers old enough to be his parents. The novel also explores what happens to celebrities who try to engage in anonymous sex and when jealousy rears its head through relationships Jeremy establishes with regular dogging partners.
Jeremy has managed to “transform” his life, and he believes he’s achieved that rare place, that bitter point: “the moment you distinguish between fantasy and reality.” But while Jeremy is intelligent and introspective, as an addict he fails to realize that all his secret life has achieved is the convergence of fantasy with reality--an explosive collision of the two. And as an addict, he is an unreliable narrator; he’s convinced, for example, that one woman is a nymphomaniac when it’s clear from the descriptions of her highly stylized performances that she’s there for the thrill and the power of a rapt audience--not because she can’t help herself. And I suppose that’s the ultimate irony of dogging. It’s supposed to present opportunities for a level playing field of sex and create the exchange of sex without intimacy, without love, relationships, or any of the associated troublesome trappings. Well yes, these things are glaringly absent, but the other trappings of sex are starkly present: ageism, racism, sexism, dominance, power & control--and their attendant miseries of humiliation and rejection. For those who care to give this intelligent novel a try, it’s well worth the read. Sex is a bold subject for a first novel, and The Isle of Dogs is destined to achieve cult status.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Isle of Dogs (February 2009)
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- Bookmunch interview with Daniel Davies
- Culture Wars review of The Isle of Dogs
- Publisher page on The Isle of Dogs
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About the Author:
Daniel Davies was born in Sutton-Coldfield, near Birmingham, in 1973, to a Welsh father and a Polish-German mother. He studied English at Cambridge. His previous jobs include curator at the British Museum, sub-editor of medical journal The Lancet and the Evening Standard. He lived abroad for three years teaching English in Barcelona, Prague and San Sebastian.