Teaching the Dog to Read by Jonathan Carroll
Anthony Areal, a forgettable, average man, trending toward wet noodle, is astonished one day to receive an anonymous gift in the mail containing the watch of his dreams: a gorgeous $9,000 Lichtenberg ‘Figure’ wristwatch. For a few minutes he’s afraid it is a dream: the watch will probably disappear or turn into a pumpkin when he touches it. But the watch stays on Tony’s arm when he puts it there, and it’s followed a week later by his fantasy car, an $80,000 gray Porsche Cayman GTS, registered in his name. Tony is delighted. His co-workers are astounded. Lena Schabort, the office temptress, suddenly reevaluates Tony’s worth, personal as well as net.
When Tony meets his benefactor, it is the “night shift” version of Tony himself, who lives in Tony’s dreams and can in some measure actually direct and control those dreams, making them become reality. Tony Night offers to switch places with Tony Day, who decides to go for the deal. Tony Day enters his dream world, where he can live out all of his fantasies but still gets random surprises like a stampede of rhinos and bull terriers, his very favorite animals, charging down the road past him. Tony Night, filled with the kind of self-confidence that makes a person attractive, begins an affair with Lena. Everything seems fantastic for both Tonys, as they meet from time to time and compare notes. But the deal doesn’t work out the way either of them intended … although not at all for the reasons I expected.
Teaching the Dog to Read, where dreams collide with reality, is engaging and highly imaginative. The meticulously crafted Lichtenberg watch, with its black face, white numerals and hands, and deep red oxblood watchband, is so vividly described that I went on Google to see if it’s a real brand (sadly, it is not, although the Porsche Cayman GTS is). And Tony’s reaction to this gift, as well as all of the other surprising events in this story, is realistic and often heartwarming.
Equally intriguing is the developing relationship between Tony Night and Lena, who begin as a fling but, rather surprisingly, develop into something more meaningful.
A small detail, trivial, that blossoms in an instant into the most important thing in your life. That innocent hand on the knee sealed the deal. Our mistake is to think love makes sense when much of the time it is, for better or worse, the most irrational thing we experience. Sometimes the biggest loves rise out of the shadows of our emotions like ghosts right in our face, but instead of hooting Boo! they say Now! Them!
The effect of their relationship on both Lena and Tony, and its repercussions, is even more unexpected. Jonathan Carroll seems to be suggesting that a deep love can recreate us, saving us but profoundly changing us at the same time.
Teaching the Dog to Read is an odd but engaging novella, very much like a surreal dream, often skewed in its logic, and in the way of some dreams it doubled down on the absurdity in the final pages. I read the entire novella twice to see if I could make any better sense of its ending with a second read. I’m not sure I did; it’s pretty weird and introduces a couple of new and substantial elements without having given them much prior foundation or foreshadowing. But I came away convinced that Carroll is gifted with both insight and imagination, even if I thought he should have reined it in just a little there at the end.
It’s entirely fitting that Tony’s last name is Areal, suggesting the antithesis of what is real. Shakespeare, in The Tempest, wrote “We are such stuff / As dreams are made of.” At least in Tony’s case, that seems to be true. I’m not certain that I feel more unreal for having read this, but it might make me view any expensive, anonymous presents in the future with a little extra suspicion. Anyone wishing to throw me off balance with diamond jewelry is welcome to give it a try.
You make this sound wonderful! And that cover grabs me and freaks me out at the same time.
Wow. That cover!
I know, that cover is bizarre! It fits the story very well, in fact.
Someone sent this to me and it made me smile. Thank you for the good words.
Thank you too, Jonathan! Karen Brisette and I were having a conversation yesterday on Goodreads about your work yesterday, in the thread attached to her review of this book. We agreed that it was a tragedy that I can’t find any of your books in the local library system. She suggested that I move.
I’m glad to see there are audio versions of Land of Laughs, Voice of Our Shadow, and Outside the Dog Museum, though I wish there were more.
I want to read this. I own several audiobooks of Jonathan Carroll’s work, but haven’t read a single one yet. You make me want to read one of them soon.