When Talking Canines Took Over New York
Twenty years after it was first published, Kirsten Bakis’s extraordinary novel Lives of the Monster Dogs still has a lot to say about the entwined destinies of animals and humans.
When Kirsten Bakis’s novel Lives of the Monster Dogs was first published in 1997, it was translated into multiple languages, adapted for the stage, and included on the New York Times Notable Books list. Among other honors, it became a finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction and won the Bram Stoker Award for First Novel. In a year dominated by juggernaut explorations of the human condition—like Don DeLillo’s Underworld—the novel’s level of success seemed destined to accord it cult status. But 20 years later, as it gets a much-deserved reissue, Lives of the Monster Dogs feels undeniably like a classic.
What makes all this perhaps surprising is that the novel is so strange, if beautifully so, imagining as it does a breed of humanistic dogs, the result of brutal experiments, that walk and talk and attempt to coexist with polite society in New York City. The novel comes to us in the form of journal entries, excerpts from an opera, and other “real” evidence, framed and explained by Cleo Pira, a woman assigned to write a magazine article about the dogs. Her explorations delve into the past, including the hideous experiments of the 19th-century Prussian surgeon who created the monster dogs. The horror and unease in the narrative derives in part from its verisimilitude in conveying the grotesque and in part the blurring of the animal and the human, resulting in a fascinating exploration of both.
One of the pleasures of Monster Dogs, then, is that it strives to exist perpetually in a place between discomfort and resolution: a transitional space that contains on the one side established ritual and an adherence to acceptable social mores, and on the other madness, violence, and disturbing imagery. The brilliance of the approach, and its bravery, is that Bakis wants to show you not just what happened on her version of the island of Dr. Moreau, so to speak, but the aftermath. Where did the animals end up? How were they haunted? How, then, is the reader haunted?
At its heart, the novel requires a certain, though not entirely complete, suspension of reader disbelief. On one level, the novel wants you to believe in uplifted dogs who display a humanlike intelligence. On another level, it knows you cannot really believe in this scenario as presented, and thus the reader must sometimes struggle, in the way good art often requires, to find other contexts in which to place these characters and events. In other words, the novel makes you think even as it traps you in its surreal, fictive dream.
In the best possible way, these contradictions are inconvenient and rude on the part of the author—to not ground the reader in either the reality or the allegory. Rather, Bakis works in the middle distance, in which the dog characters—Ludwig von Sacher, Klaue Lutz, and, of course, Mops Hacker, the leader of the dog revolution—are both sympathetic and complex. The reader is uncomfortable and simultaneously entertained.
The novel’s moments of Dr. Moreau–like immediacy offer up commentary on not just the idea of the mad scientist but science more broadly, especially in the scenes documenting the surgical experiments of Augustus Rank, the creator of the monster dogs. “This is the night, tonight, when I will finally [make a major breakthrough], and I feel as if I could just fly,” Rank writes in his journal, and it is with a kind of horror that the reader recognizes the enthusiasm and delight accompanying his exploration of the grotesque. Yet beyond the horror, the true insight is that intense curiosity about the world is amoral. After all, Alexander von Humboldt is the godfather of environmentalism, and yet he killed more than four thousand frogs trying to figure out how their limbs moved, and herded horses into marshes writhing with electric eels to see what would happen. In fact, a fair number of his experiments occurred under the patronage of the same royal family that, in Monster Dogs, funds Rank’s.
You could call such experimentation the cost of scientific inquiry or you could call it cruel. You could say, similarly, that the monster dogs are the end result of a single-minded obsession that becomes its own reward for their selfish creator, or you could say that scientists have always been known to reclassify the unethical as acceptable if it is expedient to a successful outcome. “The pressures on me are unbearable,” Rank writes, a remark that suggests that even if he were not a mad scientist, he would become one, deformed by the will of the institutions he serves.
In that context, is it important that Augustus Rank is a special kind of psychopath, or is that incidental to the point? What is clear is that the way in which the monster dogs come into being speaks to how unresolved issues in human institutions and history can become the source of conflict in the present. The monster dogs’ rise and their introduction to New York society is inseparable from their bloody history—from the brutal experiments visited upon their ancestors, to the violence required to secure their freedom. That they wear fancy clothes and adhere to certain standards of etiquette can’t protect them from the past. Are they then doomed because of their history?
Dogs and other talking animals abound in literature in part because they hold a mirror up to human behavior, even if this is a sadly regressive trope at best, a kind of human propaganda. When animals talk in fiction, the context often becomes the lesson to be learned, as in Aesop’s Fables or in the pointed political commentary of Animal Farm. Rare is the Watership Down that becomes iconic and makes readers consider the actual lives of animals, that tries to inhabit a different mode of being. Instead, the modern era is full of clichéd memes of wise owls and adorable otters superimposed with slogans that infantilize or spread misinformation about actual animal behavior. In exploring the lives of the monster dogs through diary entries and other personal accounts, Bakis performs the difficult work of making readers think in a hybrid fashion: about both animal and human intelligence.
Cherished childhood texts like The Wind in the Willows—whose internalized influence can carry over into adult perceptions of nature—contain nonthreatening, cute, and largely sympathetic portrayals of wildlife taking on human roles. But Bakis removes the soft focus and instead grapples with the industrialization of animal life, with Rank’s fascistic dream of a “perfect army of dog soldiers” contrasted with the gritty and sometimes maddening, sometimes saddening portrayal of the monster dogs living in New York. Step by step, Monster Dogs walks away from our received wisdom about animals by chronicling the dogs’ origins, their fight for freedom, and the all-too-complicated reality of their new life, which sees them begin to fall ill.
The cliché specific to dogs, that they are “man’s best friend,” beyond containing its own outdated norms by excluding half the human population, simplifies the complex questions surrounding domestication. Dogs occupy a transitional zone, bred to be human companions in a series of long-term experiments that have occurred over thousands of years. Rank’s experiments are just more of the same severe bending of the animal world to human will, conducted in a bloodier way across a shorter time frame. Of the creation of Rank’s earlier dog servants, Bakis writes, “Their brains were altered when they were puppies, and they were fitted with small temporary hands and voice boxes.” What is this description but a clunky and thus visible rendering of the process of turning wolves into human companions?
The science of the lives of canines also get intriguing treatment in Monster Dogs. Domesticated dogs display sharp recall, being able to remember names and objects for relatively long periods of time. They can also apparently tell when their owners are lying and pick up on many social cues long believed to be beyond their ken. Dogs are already intelligent.
But it is perhaps more interesting that wild dog breeds display more acute intelligence and more refined pack skills than their domesticated cousins. It’s telling that Rank is more interested in making the animal human than in trying to understand what sort of intelligence his animals might already possess and might be enhanced to create a dog whose sentience is not “humanlike” but wholly canine.
The theories behind recent advances in biomimicry hold that technology, including biotech, that follows the same paths as natural organisms and ecosystems results in favorable outcomes because it doesn’t push against the way the world works. In Monster Dogs the disconnect the dogs feel from human life, even as they try to mimic it, comes not just from feeling set apart from society, but because the way their intelligence was created works against the theories behind biomimicry. They have been made in the image of their creator—and have learned a startlingly specific and rigid societal code that compounds the errors of an unethical and flawed method of genesis. When dogs like Ludwig von Sacher begin to falter in this environment, the failure is both societal and formative; it is, in the end, a failure of the imagination. Sadly, too many such failures are evident in the real world, as advances in the sciences and technology continue to be driven by market forces, without enough introspection along the way.
Among Bakis’s wise decisions is the one she made to juxtapose the messy and ethically challenged viewpoint of Augustus Rank with not just the self-determining characters of the monster dogs but also an outside observer: the human character Cleo Pira. Cleo serves as a frame, allowing Bakis to present her fascinating series of narrative fragments without the novel becoming episodic. But it’s also via Cleo that the reader can judge the many ways in which the monster dogs become both integrated into and estranged from New York society.
Bakis’s interest in how culture mythologizes history—often erasing the bloodshed and confusion and assigning meaning where there was none before—is evident in Cleo’s inquiries into the monster dogs’ past. Through Cleo’s eyes, for instance, Mops Hacker’s rebellion becomes an opera. While the real Hacker’s diary contains entries like “1. MOPS HACKER has no Friend. 2. The Dogs his People call him Deluded,” the opera version stylizes him, makes him remote and heroic, with lines like “Dogs with hands to grasp a sword and aim a gun / And minds to understand how wars are won.” The opera legitimizes Mops, giving him an elevated diction that he clearly did not possess. And thus the simplification of history continues.
Cleo struggles to understand the dogs, to be won over, just as the reader wants to be won over. But won over to what? To seeing the monster dogs as real, and in doing so to acknowledging their personhood as a group, and then to seeing each monster dog as an individual with a unique personality and viewpoint. Cleo, as the empathic, considered counterbalance to Augustus Rank, exemplifies, for much of the novel, the best of the modern, rational approach to life.
Yet Cleo isn’t immune from irrationality, or from becoming over-involved; she experiences weird dreams toward the end of Monster Dogs, even as the exterior strangeness of events accelerates, as if her subconscious is trying to make sense of her proximity to the deeply unfamiliar. In terms of emotional intelligence, the ways in which Cleo can and cannot connect with the monster dogs, is the limitation actually just due to an adherence to politeness and the reinforcing of social norms? What happens when someone or something exists within a society that doesn’t believe it belongs there? Where does the monstrous reside then?
The word “monstrous” is a marvelous one, full of a rich complexity; it can mean obsolete or frightening or repulsive or malformed. It can refer to a person or act seen as wrong or inhuman—or it can simply mean huge, larger than life. As if Bakis knows this, the novel never quite stabilizes in such a way as to set the reader on solid ground—it simply reaches for ever more original patterns, culminating in an epic party thrown by the monster dogs that becomes as grotesque and sprawling and untidy as you might expect.
“Souls are not bound by time in the same way that living bodies are,” Ludwig writes toward the end of the novel. And yet, trapped in these imperfect vessels, souls are still subject to the laws of the universe, which never fail us. The New York Times called Bakis’s novel “a dazzling, unforgettable meditation on what it means to be human.” But with the benefit of hindsight, it appears more as if Lives of the Monster Dogs is an unforgettable meditation on both animals and humans, their deep entanglement, and the ways in which neither can, thus far, escape the methods of their genesis and their upbringing.
This article has been adapted from the introduction to Kirsten Bakis's reissued book, Lives of the Monster Dogs.