First published in 1997, Lives of the Monster Dogs is the first (and so far as I can discover, only) novel by Kirsten Bakis, picked at random from the sci-fi and fantasy shelves of my local library because I liked the font on the spine. Well, hurrah for pleasing fonts – I would have been sorry to pass this odd book by.
In 2017, New York journalist Cleo Pira finally understands she will never feel ready to make sense of the events of 2008-11 and write the story of the hundred and fifty ‘monster dogs’ who arrived in the city, so she gives it her best shot anyway and the result is the book we have here. Working with her own recollections and the notes and journals of her former friend Ludwig von Sacher, a dog who’d taken it upon himself to write the history of his race, Cleo tries to piece together the whole story.
There’s a pleasingly old-fashioned feel to the structure of the novel, with its excerpts from journals, newspaper and magazine articles, scholarly notes, and even the libretto of an opera written by one of the dogs to commemorate an important event in their history. When you mention all of that, alongside a quick synopsis of the fantastical plot, it sounds like it must be (if you’ll pardon the pun) a bit of a dog’s dinner, but it works wonderfully; the dogs’ world is eminently believable and I was drawn in immediately. In fact, twenty-something New Yorker Cleo Pira was the least believable character, a hasty sketch alongside the more rounded characters of the dogs themselves.
The monster dogs of the book’s title are, for the most part, polite and well-mannered. ‘Monster’ refers to their surgically-enhanced state. In the best traditions of these things, it all began with a mad scientist in 19th century Prussia and culminated in intelligent dogs with mechanical voiceboxes, prosthetic hands, and seriously out of date dress sense. Arriving mysteriously in New York to start a new life, they’re received enthusiastically as the latest celebrities, sparking new fashions and appearing on TV and across acres of newsprint, with every gawking bystander and reporter wanting a piece of them. Being a celebrity is not quite the same as fitting in, however.
In the edition I read, there are a couple of pages of quotes from favourable reviews of Lives of the Monster Dogs, and one of them caught my eye with a mention of Frankenstein. It’s not a bad comparison, as Ludwig wrestles with ethics and what makes a monster, as he tries to understand the dogs’ progenitor Augustus Rank and what drove him to begin his cruel experiments in the first place. Ludwig’s dignity and shame are quite moving: a so-called ‘monster’ just trying to live his life, feeling neither part of the dogs’ world any more since he’s started to question their role, nor a part of the human world where he lives on the fringes. It soon becomes clear that the dogs are being struck down by an illness, and their star is set to burn fiercely but not for long.
This is, ultimately, a novel about loss, loneliness and being an outsider. From Augustus Rank, the friendless young boy in Prussia, to his isolated successors perfecting the dog experiments in secret over the following decades, to Ludwig von Sacher trying to keep Cleo at arm’s length when he becomes one of her dearest friends. The loss of dreams and hope, of a way of life, a species, and a group of close friends – they’re all there on the pages of Lives of the Monster Dogs. There is a deep sadness to the story as Ludwig understands he’s one of the last of his race, and Cleo watches the passing of the unusual and short-lived beauty the dogs brought to the city. It’s almost impossible not to be moved by this book, though thankfully the ending wasn’t as bleak as I’d feared. There are a few niggles, not least Cleo owning a laser pistol for self-defense, but it’s such a fascinating world to be immersed in for a while that it’s easy to overlook them and just enjoy the experience.