Lives of the Monster Dogs is a quiet classic, complex and underappreciated yet also influential and profoundly affecting.
Lives of the Monster Dogs is an expert mixture of a man-made monster tale in the grand tradition of Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, an allegorical ethnography of animal civilization in the style of Watership Down and Animal Farm and a fictional scrapbook that helped inspire later, similar novels like World War Z, Robopocalypse and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Originally released in 1997 and now reissued with a new introduction by Jeff Vandermeer (author of the Southern Reach trilogy and Borne), Lives of the Monster Dogs was socially relevant at the time of its release but may be even more suited to our current time. Author Kirsten Bakis assured her novel’s timelessness by giving the subjects of the novel an epic span; though set in then-future 2008, the titular monster dogs had been living in isolation for a century before the main events of the novel and as such are both archaic and futuristic, marvels of technology but prone to nineteenth-century behavior.
Though less obvious than its relationship to monster narratives, animal fables and assemblages, there is another genre that Lives of the Monster Dogs slots into, although with less ease. It’s an immigration tale, and though it certainly was in 1997, the way that the novel relates to the 2017 immigration experience makes Bakis’ writing feel prescient. To be completely clear, this doesn’t mean that Bakis is comparing immigrants to dogs. She is, however, commenting on the way Americans treat the “other” and how, for many immigrants, becoming American is at first a quest for freedom but then later means physical and cultural extinction. This analogy applies to the immigrants of today and those long-ago immigrants from just after statehood, too. Bakis makes her monster dogs delightfully European and even daintily polite and thoughtful while also addressing their violent, bloody road to freedom. In this way, the world of the monster dogs is much like our own. Violence in society is encouraged until their chains are broken, at which point it is promptly forbidden.
There has been plenty written about Lives of the Monster Dogs over the years, though there is no doubt that the book should be far more famous than it is. Vandermeer addresses this in his introduction, explaining that even though Lives of the Monster Dogs was a critical success upon its release, it was a cult book almost right away and its status as such has grown over the years. It has never quite pushed into the mainstream, most likely because of the subtlety with which Bakis handles her subject. How can a novel about intelligent, Germanic upright dogs with prosthetic hands and speaking voices be subtle? The subtlety doesn’t lie in the situation, but rather in the way in which Bakis approaches her story. While the novel may have still worked as a pure narrative, one without ambitions towards allegory or satire, it is all the better for sitting somewhere in between. It is an entertaining read, and a fast one at that. But it is also nearly impossible to believe, to sink into, and the absurdity of the situations cannot be ignored even when approached with a straight face.
Though violent, tragic and self-aware, Lives of the Monster Dogs is a story about dogs. Unlike comparable anthropomorphic tales, which add fur and whiskers to very human characters, Lives of the Monster Dogs is filled with canine details. It is disarmingly charming, even cute at times. The details here, giving glimpses into what feels like thoroughly-researched dog psychology, will make even the least engaged dog owner look at Fido in a different light. Though the dogs are allegorical, Bakis doesn’t forget to treat dog-loving readers, and she is also smart to take advantage of the absurdity of putting dogs into human scenarios. The fact that she sets the novel in New York City, where people readily push their dogs in strollers and send them to daycare, makes her book seem less fictional than a book about walking, talking dogs probably should.
Lives of the Monster Dogs is a book that deserves to be widely read. It is the kind of work that will make a reader marvel at the wonder of a beautifully created fictional world yet also make that same reader see her own world in a different light. It is a love-letter to the intelligence and compassion of dogs and a warning against the violence of humanity, yet it isn’t so obvious as to create a distinct line between the two. Lives of the Monster Dogs is a quiet classic, complex and underappreciated yet also influential and profoundly affecting.