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Friday, September 12, 2014

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Book Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

This book is not quite like all the other books I’ve read. The story is narrated by a dog, whose sole passion in life is to become human. And in the meantime, a bunch of terrible things happen to his owner. 

And while I could appreciate the creative intent, I found that a dog narrator has its pros and cons.

Through the lovable eyes of Enzo, The Art of Racing in the Rain tests the boundaries of other-species-narration and possibly explores what it truly means to be human.

Enzo loves to watch car races on TV among other shows, like specials about Mongolian culture where dogs become humans after they die. He knows a lot about racing because his owner and best friend, Denny, is an amateur racecar driver. Besides worshipping Denny and dabbling in philosophy, Enzo also has to learn to adjust to the ever-changing lives of human beings.

At first, Enzo struggles with the addition of Denny's wife, Eve, but once they have their daughter, Zoë, Enzo realizes that having a family is actually awesome (even if he gets less trips to the dog park). More self-aware than most dogs, Enzo constantly compares the life of a dog to that of a human in prison, and while that seems dramatic, Enzo is not a normal dog. He claims his soul was meant to be human. Though he tries hard to relate to his human counterparts, he can't fully grasp the depths of human emotions, and at times in this particular story, you wonder why he'd want to.

I’m not going to lie; the beginning of the novel was a bit of a rough start for me. It takes a while to get accustomed to the all-knowing, yet innocent child-like narration of a dog. Plenty of books written from a child’s perspective work well, and while reading them can be very refreshing, at other times, it can be patronizing. Or perhaps you simply grow impatient for the narrative to move as quickly as your adult brain. But when you have a dog narrator, the human characters are very much kept at arm’s-length, and so it took much longer for me to empathize with them and, in fact, much longer for me to admit that I was even invested at all in the novel.

Foreshadowing reveals early on that Denny’s wife is going to die, so you kind of already make your peace with that. And it’s not until the second half of the novel that something more consequential happens. After his wife refuses to be treated for cancer and dies, Denny’s in-laws sue him for custody of his only daughter, and someone along the lines accuses him of statutory rape. So it’s one of those one of those books that you have to finish reading just to give yourself piece of mind that something decent will happen in the end.

But you do eventually become invested in these humans (because let’s face it, that’s where all the real drama is happening). Except, you’re only given information at surface level and only when Enzo happens to be listening in on the conversation. So I found myself a bit frustrated at times. For instance, there was an exciting courtroom scene in the end that I would have liked to been present for as a reader. But alas, dogs aren’t allowed in courtrooms.

Enzo's philosophical rants are a nice break from the tragedy surrounding him and a good segue for the times when his owners have to leave him at home. To him, life makes more sense when you can relate it back to the art of racing a car. And though some of the transitioning felt a bit random, there were a few interesting points that I found myself underlining.

Enzo seems very human almost to the point where it’s a bit unnerving. Some of his philosophical rants sounded like they were coming from somewhere else (he claims to have studied the art of rhetoric at length, and also seems well-versed in such works of literature, such as Homer, Sophocles, and the Book of Judges). He’s very opinionated, but also humble. He’s all-knowing, but he never seems to know what’s going on. And while Enzo’s point of view is certainly unique, sometimes adorable, and even insightful at times, I often found his voice to be inconsistent.

At one point, he doesn’t understand a certain exchange between three humans, remarking that so much of human “language is unspoken.” But then at another point, he perceives another human being’s intentions more clearly than his human owner, which didn’t seem to fit. Almost out of nowhere, he delivers a quick jab at pharmaceutical companies, and I found myself wondering: is he reiterating the opinions of his owner or does he really feel this strongly about pharmaceutical companies? I guess I just wasn’t always convinced that the voice of Enzo belonged to a dog—even if he’s a dog who tries to be more human than normal.

To be fair, there were times where Enzo’s voice worked really well. When you’re reading about incredibly tragic events, such as watching your wife slowly die and not being able to attend her funeral because you’re wrongfully accused of being a pedophile, the voice of lightheartedness can be quite necessary. Though, it's hard not to discredit that when you're spoon-fed bits of narrative. Or when Enzo's seemingly omniscient voice comes across as more ominous than wise. For instance, when Denny’s wife, Eve, is dying, Enzo remarks that if she had had Denny’s attitude (comprised of a mixture of denial and comparing everything to racing a car), then perhaps “things would have turned out differently for her,” which is an incredibly bold statement for anyone to say about a person dying of cancer.

I felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities to explore the depth of certain characters. You never really understand why Eve refuses to go to a doctor until it’s far too late. Denny doesn’t push it, even though everybody seems to know that she’s dying. Again, there’s the sense that we’re missing out on crucial conversations—things Enzo could easily have witnessed. We don’t know the extent of Eve’s relationship with her parents, or why they are so disapproving of Denny. And speaking of them, I also would like to have delved a little more into the motivations of these "Evil Twins" (as Enzo calls them), especially Eve’s mother. Everyone can appreciate a dynamic antagonist who truly believes that he/she is doing the right thing, and I believe Zoë’s grandmother (and the person prosecuting poor Denny for custody of his child) has a moment where she questions her and her husband’s actions. But Enzo just calls them the Evil Twins and take a crap in their kitchen in solidarity. Though it’s what he craves more than anything, Enzo isn’t human, so we’re left with a missed an opportunity to explore the theme of grief and how people find themselves compensating for the hole in their heart.

I think it would’ve actually been interesting if the narration flipped back and forth between Denny and Enzo, so you could get the perspective of the spectator as well as the real protagonist, especially with an introspective character like Denny. Denny bottles his feelings up and we are never quite sure how much he is really suffering (further adding to the fact that it takes a while to empathize with his character). Ironically, Enzo delivers this long speech about how a hero is not interesting without flaws, but yet he practically portrays Denny as the perfect hero. And to prove Enzo’s point, I didn’t find Denny very interesting. Though I’m also not entirely convinced that Denny and Enzo aren’t, in fact, the same dog-person.

I found myself asking why it was necessary to have Enzo as the narrator. You can’t follow Enzo's human friends everywhere, but maybe that’s the point. Dogs are at the mercy of humans. When Denny’s happy, Enzo’s happy. And because Enzo seemed incredibly more human than many of the actual human characters, he was the one with whom we empathized. Despite my gripes with the narration, I found myself falling in love with sweet, loyal Enzo by the end. I was rooting for his family, because I was rooting for him.

Though it wasn't my cup of tea, The Art of Racing in the Rain delicately reminds readers that dogs are characters too. And you can rest assured that Enzo will have his shining Old Yeller moment where he gets to save the day.

Title: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Author: Garth Stein

Genre: Philosophical fiction

Recommendation: Not to everyone.

Best Reader Audience: People who especially think animals are better than humans.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5 bumblebees

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