For fourteen years I lived with a dog, Bartleby, a miniature dachshund, and observed him as he observed me, paying an incredible amount of attention – because I loved him in the same unconditional way that he seemed to love me – to all his gestures…. In any case, when Bartleby died, I waited a few years and then, on an impulse during the summer began to write a story about a lost dog. It’s really that simple. The complexity of writing the story came from trying to locate and maintain a dog’s point of view, focusing on the olfactory as much as possible, while also realizing that no matter what, I’d be writing a projection onto the animal mind and that the story would ultimately be about the human world. Writing from an animal perspective, as far away from the human as I could go, was a relief – to be eased of the burden of the political social upheaval during that time.
David Means, Contributor Note
Just to be sure, I browsed through the table of contents for the past three years: Nope, no animal stories in BASS for a while now. And yes, this is a story about dog who gets lost, is taken in, and eventually gets lost again back to his original home. Indirectly, it’s also about the people involved, and how the dog serves as a connection.
To say it’s told by a dog, however, would be incorrect, yet it does give us a dog’s point of view, and in particular shows us how a dog’s perception, how certain aspects of its mental life, differs from that of a human.
Let’s start with memory:
Here I should stress that dog memory is not at all like human memory, and that human memory, from a dog’s point of view, would seem strange, clunky, unnatural and deceptive. Dog memory isn’t constructed along temporal lines, gridded out along a distorted timeline, but rather in an overlapping and, of course, deeply olfactory manner, like a fanned-out deck of cards, perhaps, except that the overlapping areas aren’t hidden but are instead more intense, so that the quick flash of a squirrel in the corner of the yard, or the crisp sound of a bag of kibble being shaken, can overlap with the single recognizable bark of a schnauzer from a few blocks away on a moonlit night. In this account, as much as possible, dog has been translated into human, and like any such translation, the human version is a thin, feeble approximation of what transpired in Clementine’s mind as she stood in the woods crying and hungry, old sensations overlapping with new ones, the different sounds that Norman’s steps had made that morning, the odd sway of his gait, and the beautiful smell of a clump of onion grass – her favorite thing in the world! – as she’d deliriously sniffed and sneezed, storing the smell in the chambers of her nose for later examination while Norman waited with unusual patience.
For those wondering about the narrative style: hold onto that, I’ll get there, I promise. But let’s focus on memory here. I don’t know how much research Means did into animal cognition, but he seems to be describing what was, until very recently, the predominant theory of dog memory: they don’t have episodic memory of specific events, as we do, but rather, associative memory. His “fanned-out deck of cards” example does a very nice job of giving us some idea of what that means without a lot of cogsci jargon.
Two studies, one from 2017 and one from 2020 (links below) indicate dogs may indeed have some degree of episodic memory, at least for their own actions. One of the articles speculates that this may indicate some degree of self-awareness, though that may be different from human self-awareness. I keep saying that every time someone comes up with a hard-and-fast boundary between people and animals, someone does a study to show that animals possess the same quality.
But as to the story: memory plays a big part as our dog, the lost Clementine, finds a new home when Steve finds her wandering in the woods:
That was all it took. One bit of spicy meat and she reconfigured her relationship with the human. She felt this in her body, in her haunches, her tail, and the taste of the meat in the back of her throat. But, again, it wasn’t so simple. Again, this is only a translation, as close as one can get in human terms to her thinking at this moment, after the feeling of the cold water on her tongue and the taste of meat. One or two bits of meat aren’t enough to establish a relationship. Yes, the moment the meat hit her mouth a new dynamic was established between this unknown person and herself, but, to put it in human terms, there was simply the potential in the taste of meat for future tastes of meat. The human concept of trust had in no way entered the dynamic yet, and she remained ready to snap at this strange man’s hand, to growl, or even, if necessary, to growl and snap and raise her hackles and make a run for it. Human trust was careless and quick, often based on silly – in canine terms – externals, full of the folly of human emotion.
Means doesn’t sentimentalize things, as a story for children would do. But does he assume people trust easily? If someone found me wandering in the woods, I might gratefully accept a meal at their table, but I wouldn’t necessarily feel safe for quite a while. However, it again compares Carmelita’s reaction – for she is now renamed, her old name unavailable to Steve and Luisa – to people, and firms up this pattern. And, by the way, gracefully and subtly shows how impermanent and artificial names are. A rose by any other…
The pattern of using Clementine/Carmelita/dog’s perception to illuminate the people in the story now becomes a centerpiece as we come to the emotional center:
Even in her excitement over her new home, Carmelita was experiencing a form of grief particular to her species. There are fifty-seven varieties of dog grief, just as there are – from a dog’s point of view – 110 distinct varieties of human grief, ranging from a vague gloom of Sunday-afternoon sadness, for example, to the intense, peppery, lost-father grief, to the grief she was smelling in this new house, which was a lost child (or lost pup) type of grief, patches of which could be found in the kitchen, around the cabinets, near the sink, and all over the person named Luisa. It was on the toys upstairs, too, and as she sniffed around she gathered pieces together and incorporated them into her own mood.
Carmelita’s examination of grief is in a smell. I wonder if there is a scent of grief that dogs, or other animals, can recognize. I wouldn’t be surprised; emotional tears, present only in humans (at least, that’s the story right now) have been shown to contain different chemicals than baseline hydrating tears or tears produced by a physical irritant. These sections are very moving, as they convey Steve and Luisa’s human story through Carmelita’s perceptions.
Now about that narrative style…
If there is one way the classic novels of British literature – the kinds of things that show up on high school reading lists and in college classes for English majors – differ from contemporary stories, it’s in the use of the intrusive narrator, a third-person device by which the narrator, while not part of the story, can hold forth on a subject deemed important to the purpose of the novel and insufficiently conveyed by the actions, thoughts, and speech of the characters. It’s why so many of us (ahem) dislike old-fashioned fiction.
The narration of this story ranges from reader address to explanation to free indirect discourse. There’s nothing forbidden about any of these, but it’s unexpected. Maybe that’s the approach that’s needed to tell a story from a dog’s point of view without resorting to anthropomorphics. I have to say, though, that whatever your opinion of this style, it would make a superb example for teaching.
And then there’s the defamiliarization, which is a bugbear of mine; I don’t know why, but I just don’t like it. In this story, it’s often ameliorated by the narrator, who tends to jump in and explain what it is that Clementine/Carmelita recognizes but can’t describe in human terms.
This morning he’d dangled the leash and while she was waiting at the back door, he’d gone to the kitchen and got a tool from a drawer, an oil and saltpeter thing that made a frightening sound, Clementine knew, because once he had taken her along to shoot it upstate. (Don’t get me wrong. She knew it was a gun but she didn’t have a name for it – it was an object that had frightened her.) The thing was zipped into his bag when he came to the door.
Yeah, I’m liking that intrusive narrator thing less and less.
But that scene brings me to my third complaint: we literally have Chekhov’s Gun here, and not only is it not fired, it’s never mentioned again. Are we supposed to wonder if Norman took his dead wife’s beloved dog for a walk, let her off the leash, then shot himself? Is that intended as the driving force of the narrative – at least until we read that Carmelita smells him a few months later? Or at that point are we supposed to wonder if she smells his rotting corpse, because of course we assume, if she can smell grief, she can smell death, but whatever happened? Am I getting this worked up over a dog story? Does that mean it was successful, even if it annoyed me?
Apparently Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Pitlor, and the editors of Granta thought it was highly successful, though I suspect you have to be someone of David Means’ literary stature to bypass the slush pile.
Ward included the story in her “immersion” category, “stories that shocked me out of my own experience and completely immersed me in another.” I might have wanted a category called Grief, since that is what binds the dog and both her companion humans together. And what so often binds people together, if we can get over ourselves long enough to recognize the pain of the other.
* * *
Scientific American: Karinna Hurley, “Your Dog Remembers Even More about What You Do Than You Think”
Nature Magazine: Claudia Fugazza et al, “Mental representation and episodic-like memory of own actions in dogs”
Smithsonian Magazine: Joseph Stromberg, “The Microscopic Structures of Dried Human Tears” (Rose-Lynn Fisher, photographer)
In the category of I-Wish-I’d-Seen-That, Jake Weber’s post on Workshop Heretic made a connection to Brandon Hobson’s story “Escape from the Dysphesiac People.”
Thanks for this blog, I always learn from you. I appreciate your clear definition of intrusive narrator. I liked that device in this story. The narrator isn’t the dog, it’s the interpreter for the dog. Very unusual. I also enjoyed having the direct reference to and dismissal of Chekhov’s Gun – that seemed to be upending reader’s expectations in a way I found delightful.
Hi Joan, nice to see you again – glad this provided something for you to think about. I also discovered one of my more absurd typos (the product of using dictation software); I’m a terrible proofreader, so maybe I need to revisit posts months later to catch them!