Sunday, 30 June 2013

Peter Heller - The Dog Stars

My sister and I are like twins born four years apart. She is my best friend and I would give her both of my kidneys. Yet, it hasn't always been this way. There was a time that even though we still felt obliged to love each other, we found we had little in common. Four years can be a serious obstacle when you're a teenager. We also belonged to an entirely different social groups. My sister was more of a cheap wine, flannel shirts, suicidal rock singers kind of girl while I tended to find my solace in weed, hoop earrings and rappers who'd been shot dead.

We didn't see eye to eye. Sometimes we wouldn't even acknowledge each other on the street.

Now, it's all different and literature is one of those things that keeps bringing us closer and closer. We read this book together on our respective Kindles and decided to review it in a recorded conversation, here translated from Polish for your benefit:

Kinga: I decided that 'The Dog Stars' is a post-apocalyptic novel about fishing. How did you like it?

Basia: I have mixed feelings. I did like the message and concept but I believe that the author didn't use their full potential, he focused too much on fishing and flying and old Cessna and at times it wasn't even so much a post-apocalyptic novel about fishing, but a self-help guide titled: "The World Ended - What To Do Now?"

Kinga: Personally, I do like books about fishing, roaming the forests and some general unhurried meditating, although you might be right that for the first 80 pages the narrator was ordered to wander about while the author was just starting to figure out the plot.

Basia: My feelings exactly. It was as if the author created this post-apocalyptic world (a very believable, it has to be said), and during writing he remembered a novel should also lead somewhere, that there should be a climax, so while the main character is flying his Cessna (playing for time), the author comes up with what happens next.
But let's start from the beginning: we are in the United States, the majority of population died of flu. The narrator who guides us around this post-apocalyptic world is Hig, who is somewhat forced to share his new life with Bangley. The creation of these two main characters was one the things I really liked about this book, although I think some people might find these two too stereotypical.

Kinga: I really liked these characters too. And I didn't find them particularly stereotypical. In the beginning I thought Hig was a really tough guy, because he can swear and shoot a deer, but then when see him through Bangley's eyes, we notice his weakness (or, if you like, his humanity) and we see that Bangley is taking care of Big Hig, at the same time revealing his own weakness. In reality, 'The Dog Stars' is a bit of a Western. Two guys sit in some God-forgotten hole, they talk little, shoot a lot, sometimes they would feed a corpse to the dog, but in all of it they grew to love each other. And as it is in all Westerns there comes a woman, traditionally devoid of personality, and her main feature are her violet eyes. That woman is a nurturer, care-taker and all-round chicken soup for the soul.

Basia: You thought of Westerns and I thought of two philosophers who spoke of anarchy and the creating of nation. And there is no better place and time to test such theories than right after an apocalypse, where everything that the humankind had built falls apart and it can finally be established whether the natural state for humans is to be happy and peaceful like Locke had it (here Hig) or whether it's a state of constant struggle brought forward by the innate selfishness of people like Hobbes maintained (starring Bangley).
So what I think Peter Heller is doing here is that he is proposing a thought experiment of a sort: imagine that all the humandkind expired and there are only two dudes left with completely opposite outlooks on the world. What will happen and will those outlooks even matter anymore?


Kinga: I also thought about this dichotomy. And that even in those almost lab-like environment such as that post-apocalyptic world it was very difficult to test these theories. Because on one hand we have Bangley, who preventively shoots everyone and on the other hand we have Hig who is free to test his theory of loving one's neighbour but he will only be able to be wrong once. 

To be perfectly honest I thought that it would've looked different in Europe due to purely technical reasons - it would be next to impossible to gather such an arsenal like in the US, and it would be somewhat harder for people to kill each other, so they would be forced to talk to each other. And once they start talking, it might turn out it's better to be together than against each other. I think this was the final optimistic conclusion of this novel.
Basia: I believe that paradoxically this novel was supposed to be uplifting after all and it wanted to remind us something important. From the flashbacks we can gather that the characters' lives before the catastrophe were full of waiting for something, until they make enough money, can start a family, waiting for the courage to change their careers. Waiting for that real life to begin.  And of course only with the hindsight and with the apocalypse in mind can they realise that that was the real life, those were the best moments.



Funny how you can live a whole life waiting and not know it. [...] Waiting for your real life to begin. Maybe the most real thing the end.

Maybe those quotes, away from the novel, might sound trite and gushing but amongst that jagged and austere narrative made quite of an impression on me.

Kinga: I agree. I think in general this is the appeal of post-apocalyptic novels. All those things, that we fret over, even though we realise they're not that important, get cancelled and life returns to the basics. In real life, only selected few have it in them to just reject all that nonsense, the rest console themselves with reading. As a matter of fact, most books about fishing are not really about fishing but also about what's important in life. And it turns out that what's important it's to find someone we can love and everything will somehow works itself out. Even if that someone is just a dog.

You mentioned the jagged, austere style. I liked it a lot. It was as if that whole trauma of the apocalypse deprived people of the ability to talk. Loneliness and sadness drive Hig to speak like a troglodyte, there are many things left unsaid and sentences end with prepositions that should be followed by a noun, but Hig can't bring himself to say it. There was a great scene of a conversation between Hig and Bangley, which I'll quote here:


I asked him if he ever thought there was anything more than this, than just surviving day to day. Recon, fixing the plane, growing the five vegetables, trapping a rabbit. Like what are we waiting for? His chair, crick crick, stopped. He got very still like a hunter that smelled an animal on the wind. Close. Like he woke up.

Say again.

More than this. Day to day.
He worked his jaw. His mineral eyes graying in the fading light. Like maybe I’d tipped over the edge. Gotta go he said. Stood up.

Basia: This is exactly how I felt about the style. I was enchanted by the language, especially after my trials and tribulations with Doris Lessing and her 'Memoirs of a Survivor', where, by contrast, the narrative is formed by long, fancy sentences always ending with an ellipsis. Actually the only thing I didn't quite like about this novel was that despite great world-building and a fantastic style, simply not enough happened. On the other hand, now I'm thinking... what can happen when the world ended?
Kinga: I feel the same way - we expect such novels to be action-packed but really it's all after the. After the.


* -  the photos of me and my sister look like they were taken in the 60's but they were actually taken in the 80's in communist Poland. Colour photos were quite expensive so my mum used mostly black-and-white films and developed them herself in our bathroom.




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