Book: Automatic Safe Dog
Author: Jet McDonald
Type of Book: Fiction, humor, just plain disturbing
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This is an utterly fucked-up book that combines several genres into an unsettling, sometimes hilarious, sometimes trenchant book.
Availability: Published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, you can get a copy on Amazon or you can get a copy cheaper directly from the publisher.
Comments: When I began this novel, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to finish it because it features a business plan wherein dogs are turned into miserable, rigid, stationary pieces of living furniture. I cannot stomach cruelty to animals and, in a way, the cruelty to these dogs was all the more horrible because it was so bloodless, matter-of-fact and accepted by others in the context of the book. I suspect the reason I was able to finish the book in spite of the content is because McDonald managed to subvert the use of abused animals in a horror-like narrative. They aren’t victims of one specific madman but are a symbol of a larger societal callousness. Somehow, that distinction made it easier for me to tolerate what happens to dogs in this book, as unlikely as that may seem.
This is a dense book – a murder mystery in the vein of And Then There Were None, a frustrating love story, a story of corporate subversion and a moral awakening – so know my synopsis of the plot, by necessity, must leave out a lot of details. The protagonist, a sort of sad sack Everyman named Terribly “Telby” Velour, begins the novel working for one of a number of Pet Furnishings warehouses. There he meets a new employee named Ravenski Helena Goldbird, for whom he develops a deep infatuation. As he tries to impress her one day, he engages in an antic that breaks the back of one of the dog-furniture pieces and gets fired. He later learns Ravenski Helena Goldbird is actually the adopted daughter of the CEO of the Pet Furnishings firm and he decides to create a new identity in order to get a new job with Pet Furnishings. Ravenski Helena Goldbird is now part of the executive board and Telby cons his way into a job in research and development in order to be closer to her. Telby enters a labyrinthine world of corporate espionage, personal viciousness, wanton cruelty and salacious behavior, all tempered by subversive hilarity and sly ridiculousness that prevent all the horror from becoming too much. As Telby watches as his coworkers fall one by one to a mysterious murderer, he is forced to examine what he is doing and the morality of the job he has taken, the morality of those around him, and though I am not entirely sure what I think about the ending, Telby ends this novel consumed by a metaphysical sorrow that he did not entirely earn through his actions but has to experience nonetheless.
With my brief synopsis of this intense plot out of the way, the only way I can truly show you what McDonald is about is through text samples. Even as this novel hinges on modifying living animals into furniture, where, still living, they serve as settees and footstools and stands for televisions, there is so much humor, high ridiculousness, and an almost gentle sadness that it is a marvel that McDonald managed to pull it off.
Here’s one of the first passages I highlighted, and it’s an important one because it explains the title of this book. Ravenski evidently suffered some sort of breakdown after beginning to work for Pet Furnishings, but when she returned, she moved on quickly from her difficulties (likely caused from having to saw off dogs’ legs and similar).
She returned to Pet Furnishings and took a post on the executive board. It was she who was responsible for the Automatic Safe Dog. They developed a microchip that you could puncture through the dog’s skull; ‘With the chip of a mallet, the dog has a habit.’ The chip was studded into the dog’s motor cortex and pet sofas and divans were made automatic and safe so they didn’t howl, bite, shit or piss until programmed at preset intervals. This made for not just safer but cleaner furnishings. Our customers forever complained of the times their mutt would whine to be let out, just when they needed to pet it or love it or sit down for a cup of tea, and then they’d have to deal with the inevitable mud in the castors or dew in the tassels. But Ravenski changed all that with her bold new ideas and leapt up the career ladder, far away from the ‘real’ people.
This is some twitchy prose, gentle reader. Yet I struggled through horribleness like this – people making sentient animals into furniture and still being so craven that they resent the basic care their living divan upon which they settle their pampered asses requires in order to stay alive – because I hoped that the level of detail McDonald was giving this dystopia meant the novel would have some greater purpose than just inflicting such wretched details on the reader. My patience was ultimately rewarded, but this is an example of the careless cruelty that you will find in this book.
Telby’s approach to getting a new job, in disguise, on Pet Furnishings’ executive board, is a disturbing but hilarious look at the complete insincerity and lack of concern for substance one often encounters in the corporate world. He stands in front of the mirror, rehearsing his lines like he’s auditioning for a play, which, in a way, he is.
“I have always been research driven. I was always more interested in the sweet wrappers than the sweets…I like rock climbing and canoeing. Yes, I’m a member of the rock canoeing club, up granite face and then down stream…Every Sunday and then off to the pub…of course relaxation is very important. For every work ethic there must be a work leisure…Well I see my role as being a bull in the china store, breaking a few plates for the sake of a dinner set…” On and on I would continue with this, into the early hours, until I found myself muttering into the mirror’s surface, where I’d fallen asleep.
He perfects this nonsense, going out in disguise until after sixteen days he transforms himself into the lunatic Terribly “Telby” Velour, his cheeks stuffed with cotton balls and his patter not unlike that of the average contestant on that horrible show where Donald Trump fires people.
To give you a taste of McDonald’s witty and silly dialogue, here’s a scene wherein Telby is visiting his doctor. He is troubled by what he calls “bladder stone colic,” a condition that leaves him in terrible pain. He and the doctor both have a hard time focusing.
“An operation,” he concluded, not without a little relish, as if this was to be his only pleasure in the disinfected room.
“But I don’t have time.”
“Well you’ll have to make some time then.” He seemed impatient and tried to smile as if to indicate the end of the consultation.
I noticed his poor dentition. “How often do you brush your teeth?” I asked him.
“Do you brush your teeth every day or just, occasionally?”
“Well I have to say I’m a bit of a tooth libertarian…” he started to warm to the subject. “Once every three days is my maximum. There’s enough on my consulting plate without brooding on enamel plaques. A bit of dental neglect gives me quite a hedonistic thrill. Teeth, you see, are the dentist’s preserve.
“But if you don’t brush your teeth you could end up with gum disease, decay, and even dentures.
He smiled with what were clearly brown, sticky teeth. “Isn’t it decadent? Halitosis is a bit of a problem though.” He leaned forward. I leaned away.
“About my bladder stone?”
“Yes, the stone.” He closed his tarry smile and fell into his swivel chair.
“Isn’t there some kind of truss?” I asked.
“I’m afraid not. All I can offer you is pain killers, or the operation.”
“We used to use suppositories but they banned those for obscure reasons.”
“What kind of painkiller?”
“Pethidine, mainly…as an injection.”
“You know, sharp, pointy thing.”
“I can’t give myself injections.”
“Well surprisingly you can. A Commons Committee decided that suppositories were ‘a bit French’ and ‘rather queer’ and that injections were far more suitable. It was during the Conservative resurgence a few years back. There’s a very interesting debate in one of the Sunday magazines, you should read it.”
“It’s not the Pethidine so much, it’s just I’m…needle phobic.”
The G.P. picked up a drawing pin, loose on his desk, and pushed it between thumb and forefinger. “We can cure that,” he said, “by repeated exposure.”
I found this scene delightful. However, this is also an example of the interesting editing I found in the e-book I was sent. I think I may have subconsciously cleaned some of it up as I went, and there were problems to be sure, but ultimately the editing problems were not too intrusive.
It won’t give away too much of the plot when I reveal that Telby gets a job with the executive board at Pet Furnishings. On his first day, he meets his staff and coworkers, as one does. It is here that we meet Abel, Telby’s assistant and one of the randomest and silliest characters in a book fairly teeming with random and silly characters.
“Abel,” said my secretary, offering his hand. “I’m profound.”
“In what way?”
“I’m a writer. I’m only doing this to pay the bills. In fact, I’m an undiscovered great.” Abel seemed to have an impossibly long body, not thin, but long, as if all his mass had been extruded without losing the breadth. He had enormous nostrils like the vents of jet engines from which a few hairs fluttered between thin lips like a series of mahjong tablets from which the offending spots had been wiped. His puppety arms were continually restless in florid piques of outrage and condescension.
“Also, I don’t do shorthand, it cramps my style.”
Telby’s interactions with Abel are always a bit unsettling.
“Yes?” He turned his head like a nut on a bolt.
“Why is there a fish swimming in the water cooler?”
“It’s a Pampas fish; it gobbles up the detritus and keeps the water clean. They harvest them from whales.”
“Doesn’t it, you know, contaminate the water?”
“It makes a very nutritious effluent. It charges the water with vitamins, electrifies its micronutrients. I add them to my bath at home.”
“They nibble my body perfectly clean. And it is only when I am perfectly clean that I write my best work. I get out before they micronutrient.”
Abel is writing his magnum opus a syllable a day. But no worries. I won’t share Abel’s work in progress as it progresses. But Abel is the source of so much pretentious silliness that he became my favorite character in this often brutal book, because even as he annoys, he is largely benign. There are so many scenes of Abel being a perfect little pedant that it’s hard to pick just one. Here he is, razzing Telby:
“All the secretaries are saying you’re the talk of the elevator, a real bull in the china store and you were only meant to be a mop head, that sounds like a real promotion to me.”
“Aren’t you mixing your metaphors?”
“How dare you accuse me, a writer, of mixing my metaphors? They are hybrids, neologisms of the highest disorder. I am the author, lest you forget, of the greatest work of this century.”
“But you’ve only written two syllables.”
“Three actually but I’ve started designing the book jacket.”
“Don’t books have to contain words?”
“I suppose, but all the best writers work from the outside in. I’ve decided mine will be bound in vermillion and the title will be ‘Tantric Kant – Sex in the Age of Wonder’, with a Geneva font and the subheading: ‘Fuck right and wrong, let’s fuck.’”
Yes, Abel’s a pretentious clown but in the tradition of fools, he speaks a truth in this passage that the reader overlooks because we don’t pay close attention to fools. It wasn’t until I was finished reading and began analyzing the book for discussion that I realized McDonald was far cleverer a writer than I had initially realized, crappy punctuation be damned.
But Abel is going to be just one small problem for Telby as he tries to woo Ravenski while he does his best to perform a job he is wholly unqualified to hold. But then all humans are unlikely to be qualified for what it is that Telby tries to undertake. Bearing in mind that this is a novel in which half the characters will die terrible deaths and dogs are sawed up in a post-humanist (post-canine?) redefinition of furniture, scenes like this one help. Here Telby meets Miss Davidson. He is fiddling with the “bauble” on the fly of his pants when he is interrupted.
“Miss Davidson is here for lunch,” said Abel.
I got up from the chair and yanked at the bauble.
Ibore Davidson burst into the room. As she did so I unzipped my fly and the bauble tore from its clasp and rolled across the carpet towards her. She crushed it underfoot, rezipped my trousers and looked me straight in the eye.
“Let’s do Lunch.”
“Couldn’t we have a sandwich?”
“Sandwiches are for the boys.” She turned and regarded me over her shoulder, ” and, I, am a woman.”
Ibore paced out and I followed. I could feel fragments of bauble crunching under my sole.
Ibore leant over Abel’s desk on her elbows. “Cancel all Mr. Velour’s appointments.”
He leaves as Abel offers to write him a nasty limerick and lest we forget this is not some clever 1960s bawdy comedy, Ibore and Telby have difficulty with the elevator because a dog has been crushed in the shaft. Yeah…
Things move quickly with Ibore, as you sort of knew they would. And it also all goes down the way you sort of knew it would, though you couldn’t have known this exactly because who the hell but McDonald could have imagined this scene (and just remember, Telby is in disguise, his mouth crammed with cotton balls – I feel you need to keep this in mind as you read this)? So Telby and Ibore have sex atop all the modified dog furnishings in her apartment until she insists they move to a final location. All of Ibore’s windows have a magnifying effect that she can control with a remote.
We ended up doing it on the coffee table. Ibore on all fours, me taking her from behind, my hands cupped under her breasts. As our rhythm escalated I noticed the cityscape in front of us magnifying in jumps. Ibore had the heel of one hand on the remote control and with each pump forward was accidentally pressing a button. She had her head down in the processes of her orgasm but I couldn’t help but notice the magnifications of the screen that we made with each thrust. The view expanded to the rooftops of the tower blocks, then focused on a passing plane with a red flashing light, enlarged again so the plane filled the whole wall and then a single cabin window, until finally, as Ibore howled, it became the face of a fat businessman eating his airline meal. Noodles dribbled from his mouth. He turned to look at us with a Soya sauced string hanging from his lips.
“Madness,” I shouted.
“Taoist,” shouted Ibore.
Yep, he wants to win Ravenski’s heart, he boinks Ibore and ends up a sideshow to a surprised man in an airplane. And he managed to keep the cotton balls in his mouth the entire time. Oh, Telby… And despite the fact that Telby had the capacity to schmooze his way into a job he doesn’t understand in order to woo Ravenski, he gets pulled in all directions by other peoples’ forces of will. Ibore drags him to bizarre restaurants wherein one more or less has to tackle the aggressively dancing wait service staff in order to get food. He permits her to take him to a sadistic clothier with an odd German accent who trusses him up in a straight-jacket sort of corset in order to give him better “pectorvals.” She then takes him to a hair studio wherein such painful things are done to Telby that he fairly begs for vodka to help temper the discomfort. And then this happens:
She disappeared and came back with a bucket full of sopping newspaper in a glue paste and then proceeded to roll the sheets into twists and attach them to the spikes of hair.
“Nice weather,” she said as she fixed a strip of the international news section.
“Nice,” I said.
“So what do you do then?”
I searched my mind for a more or less interesting persona. “I’m an Islamic extremist,” I said.
“That’s lovely; we had an astronaut in from the NASA space programme last week…”
“Nice chap he was. Lovely chest.”
We continued in this vein until she had finished attaching all the glued twirls of Times broadsheet.
“…so I said to him it must get awfully cold up there…”
I looked at my reflection in the mirror. I was a white rasta, newspaper dreadlocked in a kindergarten pasting frenzy.
Telby entered into this with a disguise but he had no idea how quickly the experience would render him unrecognizable even to himself.
But McDonald knows what he’s doing because there is a method to his madness. Imagine how Telby looks at this point: mouth crammed with cotton balls, hair turned into a Times London dreaded mess, wearing a corset that pushes his body fat upward to give him “pecs.” And imagine this human being giving a research and development presentation for, god help us all, a dog in the box.
“This,” I pointed at the thing, “is not a real dogs head but in three months time we hope to be able to produce the genuine article, a dogs head on a spring, isn’t that right Ballistrade?”
“We are developing the technology that will allow us to create a bioengineered dogs head,” he continued, “we did toy with using actual dog tissue…”
“But,” I tapped my stick on the table, “there are issues to do with public relations which despite our best efforts,” I nodded respectfully at Denis McCloy, “may clog up the merchandising process.”
Indeed, putting a living dog’s (YES, DOG’S) head on a spring could be alarming to the average consumer who finds animal torture for the sake of home accessories distasteful. There is no ridiculous to the sublime in this novel. We generally go from the ridiculous to the utterly sickening.
But there are moments of tenderness in this book of the hilarious and the grotesque. When Ravenski invites Telby back to her place after the dog in the box presentation, and she begins to undress, I worried that it was going to be a repeat of the Ibore experience, but it wasn’t. It’s touching, non-sexual and unexpected, and so worth reading I won’t spoil it.
The novel becomes darker and even more interesting when Telby begins to hear the building communicate via taps in the walls, which he eventually realizes is morse code. McDonald doesn’t give us an easy mystery here in the form of a prisoner tapping frantically in order to be freed from some cage hidden in the walls of Pet Furnishings. Rather, the building appears to be communicating with itself – or at least two entities are communicating with themselves.
I decided to scamper between the walls and record each sentence in turn to see if there might be some kind of coded conversation in progress.
“So you think the secret of prophecy is to be profane?”
“No I think it is to be articulate without being archaic.”
“And poetry is not articulate?”
“My right leg aches you know.”
“I thought you had no leg?”
“Well I must do. If it aches.”
“It’s probably phantom limb pain.”
“I don’t subscribe to the theory of phantom limb pain.”
“Not factual enough for you? Too poetical?”
“If my right leg aches it must, by definition, be in existence.”
“Well my left arm aches and I know its not there.”
“How can you tell?”
“Once they knocked off those reflective glasses, by mistake, and I saw that my left arm was definitely without presence…. but it still pains me.”
“You must be mistaken.”
“No, I saw it, or rather I didn’t.”
“You need more proof.”
“Be done with proof, use your instincts to guide your fleeting perceptions.”
“English life is vast tracts of politeness with punctuations of extreme violence.”
“I’m tired of your aphorisms.”
“I’m tired of your poetry.”
It’s difficult to explain why, but this passage made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, not because the conversation is inherently frightening, but because of what the message could imply. Sentient creatures missing limbs? Did Pet Furnishings R&D create extremely intelligent dogs in their demented quest to create the most cutting edge dogs in the box or television stands? Have we entered Christopher Fowler territory of sentient office buildings? I won’t reveal the source of this querulous conversation but with this scene McDonald was setting up the moral conflict Telby will face as he comes to terms with his own frauds and participation in the clinical cruelty he engages in, all in the name of pursuing romantic love.
Even as his coworkers begin to be murdered, one by one, and as Telby is confronted by intense conversations via morse code coming out of the walls, the strangeness isn’t over by a long shot. As he flees Abel reciting the first sentence of his magnum opus, Telby encounters the dancing French girl, who dances through the building accompanied by a beat that insinuates itself into Telby’s brain as the phrase “restless movement.”
I ran from the office and the tapping faded but the funky beat carried on. I hurried past a typing pool and saw her again, the mysterious dancing French girl. She was wearing a bare black top that revealed a gyrating lower back and her headphones mashed out the addictive funky beat that made me rock in time behind her. “Restless movement yeh, yeh. Restless movement yeh, yeh.” I ran up and was about to touch her on the shoulder when Abel reached his arm across my chest and held me back. He looked down his nose with disdain.
“I told you didn’t I? You must never touch the beautiful dancing French girl or she will bring you bad luck. Curdled karma.”
As I think of all that happens in this book, at all the attention to detail in all of these bizarre situations and given to all these insane people, this book has a Terry Pratchett/Douglas Adams feel to it. All these strange details, many of which may not be germane to the plot, may seem overwhelming. The aggressively dancing wait staff. The man in the plane eating noodles. The dancing French girl. But all of these details help paint the uneasy, strange and at time ridiculous world Telby inhabits, and McDonald does such a good job of world-building a 1960s London that has advanced satellite imaging alongside typing pools, that none of it ever seems distracting.
I mention this because in this already over-long review, I cannot even begin to go into all the strange people and situations you encounter in this book. The Gender Go Go Girls, a guerrilla group that lead a cultural rebellion against romantic love. Telby contracts rabies and engages in all sorts of uncomfortable medical shenanigans to keep himself well and under control. A washroom attendant whose genius is what fuels the Pet Furnishings executive board. This is a novel populated with a dozen or so incredibly odd characters and filled with so many strange situations that it could almost be called zany. Almost. McDonald keeps his lunacy grounded, bringing us back to the gravity of the situation – suffering animals, insensitive and murderous people, drones blunted by the boredom and cruelty of modern work.
I’ll share one last quote from the book, a quote that shows Telby’s eventual awakening and disgust for what he has done. Earlier in the novel, a dog got stuck in a wall and animals are such a disposable commodity that no one is much bothered with getting him out. Telby, by now rabid, being stalked by a killer and under guard at all times for his “safety,” finally breaks down.
And then I turned to look through the windows. The vista was outshone by the glow of the bulb, which lingered in the backcloth of my eyes, silhouetting the blood vessels of my vision so they seemed to weave into the plaza like wires. “Revolution,” I said. I began to cry and the tears made me blink, shorting and blurring the capillaries of my sight; a breach of grief for the greyhound with the silver striped muzzle and expectant gaze, for the rotting dog in the wall, for the rabid blood that beat through my veins.
McDonald also doesn’t give his reader any easy out. The ending broke my heart but I genuinely do not know if there was any other way he could have ended this book. The best thing I can say about the ending is that at least it wasn’t morally ambivalent.
I get lots of books sent my way and I have come across a lot of extremely talented writers. I think McDonald’s writing is very near genius. As you can see in the passages I quote, McDonald needs a good copy editor to fix his problems with comma usage (or lack thereof) and possessives. And that’s an important criticism because a writer this talented should not take the risk of having his work dismissed because of poor punctuation usage. But this book was a revelation. A murder mystery, a farce, a romance, a sketch of a lunatic world, a glimpse of an uncaring and venal societal and the way that small venal sins can become mortal sins if we let them go on too long. This is a long book, coming in at 270 pages. McDonald got me hooked despite the animal cruelty and he kept me reading. I devoured this book in three days because the hilarity and silliness thrilled me as I waited for the other shoe to drop. I can’t remember the last time a new book from an author unknown to me proved to be the sort of read I simply could not put down until finished. Highly recommended.