This review used to contain several instance of so called 'language'. Now the sample quoted from the book has been asterisked out, and the other instances mostly replaced by less offensive (albeit still crude) expressions. The original can be still read at www.thebookbag.co.uk and the version with just an asterisked word at Helium.
It concerns novel openly dealing with not entirely conventional sexual behaviours. Please refrain from reading if this offends. Please also note that the novel herein reviewed contains much more of "language" and none of it asterisked.
Jeremy Shepherd, an editor of a glossy London men's magazine, undergoes an existential crisis which makes him realise his work is meaningless and his lifestyle overloaded with the unnecessary trappings of urban affluence. In six weeks he resigns from his job, sells his flat and moves to back to the never-named provincial English town he came from, to live with his parents and work in the Civil Service in a junior office role.
He decides to redesign his life in accordance with Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and all the lower needs satisfied, he concentrates on the self-fulfilment goals. For Jeremy, self-fulfilment is about sex, and sex is abundantly forthcoming in the shadowy 'circuit' of dogging enthusiasts who use the Internet to arrange meets with like-minded people to have casual sex with (largely anonymous) strangers in car parks. "The Shep" becomes Jeremy's 'scene' nickname and soon he settles in a satisfactory existence whose rhythm is dictated by the pursuit of pure sexual satisfaction.
But the CCTV cameras are an ever present danger and when one of the meets is disturbed by the police, one of the 'circuit' acquaintances is attacked by vigilante yobs and another (a minor celebrity) blackmailed, Jeremy's perfect life starts falling to pieces.
The Shep is articulate, educated, content and unbearably conceited. His stripping down of his life to the bare minimum has not made him any less so: as a savagely satirical portrait of an utter tosser, The Isle of Dogs succeeds rather well.
And a tosser he is: Jeremy's pleasures are essentially - in a literal as well as figurative sense - masturbatory. Despite the philosophical significance The Shep attributes to the encounters, dogging is neither socially nor existentially subversive.
As much as a novel of contemptible conceit, The Isle of Dogs is a - somewhat cautionary - tale of watching and being watched. Most if not all of the characters are either voyeurs or exhibitionists or both. I am tempted to read this as a mockery of psychological ego-centrism of our times, where navel gazing became a major leisure pursuit and countless people publicly document their lives in the most mundane detail, be it on blogs or Twitter, YouTube or YouPorn.
The action unfolds in and around an unflatteringly depicted provincial English town where there is nothing much to do but "shop, drink, fight and f**k". This has a ring of truth to it too, although the social critic in Davies is perhaps trying to cram too much into too little a space.
We have the idealist artifice of pornography contrasted with the democracy of the meets; multi-ethnic society; vacuous celebrity, tabloid sensationalism; pervert-hunting reminiscent of anti-paedophile moral panics and a huge dose of thuggish violence meted out by racist yobs. All of this in addition to the recurring motif of the cameras: CCTV ones, from which the dogging scene participants understandably shy away and the hand held variety, used to document the sessions.
For many readers, though, The Isle of Dogs will be less about social commentary and more about an insight into the dogging 'scene'. The technical details including the codes of communication are convincing (although I find it hard to believe that lone women never, ever turn up at any of the meets). The sex scenes are graphic and on their own wouldn't be out of place in erotica/porn, but - strangely - they didn't feel gratuitous in the larger scheme of the narrative.
The Isle of Dogs abounds with literary references, both ironic and serious. Houellebecq and Ballard have both been mentioned in the reviews quoted by the back cover blurb, and Davies himself perhaps courted such references directly by having his character read a Houellebecq novel. The clinically detached manner of the delivery, the alienation of the main character and the (occasional) cold poetry of the urban dereliction is remindful of Ballard (as is, on a simple level, the whole 'sex in cars' scenario).
A scant two hundred pages long, The Isle of Dogs is mostly a first-person narrative of Jeremy's, but is framed by an authorial introduction and an epilogue which make it contrived and slightly clunky.
Such a construction was necessary to allow The Isle of Dogs to end as it does: with two words that deliver the punchline, a clever and a very funny one if perhaps unnecessary. Somehow, that punchline changed the balance of the novel for me: I lost all the meaning of Jeremy's narration (however unreliable it might have been) and was left pondering the connection between what was revealed and what happened to The Shep. I still have not worked out the "why?". If any readers have their theories, please do tell me.
Cautiously recommended (unless you can't stand the sex scenes) but probably better borrowed than bought.
Publisher: Serpent's Tail May 2009