A Dog Between Us by Duncan Barlow
Stalking Horse Press, April 2019
248 pages / Amazon
What words outline a human life?
Ostensibly, Duncan Barlow’s A Dog Between Us is about loss. The majority of the novel alternates between a hospital room where Crag, the narrator, is watching his father suffer through illnesses and then the aftermath of his father’s passing. Crag is surrounded by death, the embarrassing brashness of death, how it shows itself naked against the glass. Its noises and smells and confusion. Around Crag, who is centered in the hospital even when he’s not physically there, are orbiting relationships with women and his family, his past and the possibilities ahead of him, all seemingly ancillary in relation to his father.
The night creeps behind this moment where flowers phosphoresce in the crepuscular gloom. I arrange words in sequences. Think of how I’ll write about this. One day. I have always written about death. About sadness. Yet, when I’m in the mouth of it, I’m devoid of language.
This novel does an excellent job capturing the complex nature of loss and of losing. The obvious sadness is there, but Barlow mottles it with anger and guilt and the frantic search for some semblance of comfort. Losing someone from an extended illness is an arduous experience. Primarily because it is so enmeshed in waiting and the pressure of time. Outside the nucleus of the hospital, Crag looks for comfort in Emma, a long-time hometown crush and student of something vaguely rooted in semiotics. Is it film studies? Literature? Whatever she is studying is outside Crag’s grasp, though she repeatedly explains that the purpose is to discover the biological origin of words.
The phone vibrates. I have lost my way in language. I read her message twice. Three times. Another. I move the words in my head. Roll them on my tongue. Breathe them in and out. Spit them. Suck them. Weigh them for subtext. There is nothing I can make of them. I write as much.
Through Emma, the reader understands that this novel is about more than loss or death. It is about the pursuit for meaning. Language is how we root ourselves in history and understanding. Through the origins of words, through understanding the signified and the signifiers around us, Emma is trying to understand her world. Crag is trying to do the same but from a distance, where he can still safely see the unknown and the malleable as magic. In one scene, Emma and Crag question whether or not animals understand language. If the color red is a word since it is understood by a bull. Crag has made both his father and his girlfriend signifiers for something larger than themselves. By the end of the novel, we see Emma exploring the internal mechanisms of the living, still digging for the roots of meaning while Crag, in turn, adopts new signifiers. As they move away from each other, away from the orbit of the hospital, the burning crux now extinguished, we see their pain but realize that it is not so much at their separation but at the fact that they both had grown attached to the meanings they had assigned each other.
This is what a father does. Carries lifetimes on his back. The archivist of those achievements and mementos that we children left behind, forgot. I can barely stand to look at it. To recall all the love of my father. How it hangs above me like a guillotine.
The most enjoyable aspect of this novel is Barlow’s ability to spark off lovely, philosophical meditations amidst scenes of everyday mundanity. Each chapter contains poetic renderings that makes the reader pause. They crop up in the middle of a description of giving a sick person a bath or laying in a bed or driving a car. They mirror scenes of feeding a dog treats or getting a text. These thoughts, these sentiments, give each grey moment the beauty and the meaning we are always searching for.
I dream of ashes. Of ashen people decaying in the wind. Of lovers colliding in a cloud. The world spinning and whirling and the bodies obscuring the sun in their own demise.
Jesi (Buell) Bender is an artist from Upstate New York. Her work can be found in Split Lip, Lunch Ticket, and Paper Darts, among others. She also runs KERNPUNKT Press, a home for experimental writing. www.jesibender.com