Review: Funeral for a Dog

Review by Tobias Carroll

Funeral for a Dog
by Thomas Pletzinger; translated by Ross Benjamin
W.W. Norton, 322 p.

Thomas Pletzinger’s novel Funeral For a Dog opens with a pair of epigraphs. The first comes from the late Swiss writer Max Frisch; the second, from the Portland punk trio The Thermals. Specifically, for the latter, it’s “Hardly art, hardly garbage,” taken from their 2003 debut More Parts Per Million. That lyric crops up again in the novel, in the journals of a writer named Dirk Svensson, one of two narrators here. Those lyrics aren’t simply provided for thematic inspiration: they show up in a tangible form, helping inhabit this book, providing context and illuminating several characters’ lives. It’s a particular sort of person that scrawls Thermals lyrics as part of a notebook-cover collage, after all, and it makes for a smart and telling detail.
At various points over the course of a decade, we encounter Svensson’s dog, named Lua — and that choice of name leaves one wondering, when reading a novel that invokes The Thermals, if Pletzinger isn’t also referencing Bright Eyes in the midst of all of this. The centerpiece of said group’s 2004 I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning is a song that shares its name with the fictional canine in question; it’s a haunted, mournful ballad of nights that stretch on for much too long, of damaged people walking down New York City sidewalks, aware of their own worst habits but not doing much about them. It evokes a certain mindset of a decade ago, of a broken city in flux and, given that Pletzinger is eyeing that same period and that same place, it doesn’t seem like a particularly bold leap to make.

Pletzinger vividly evokes New York City in late 2001 and early 2002 — where fear and rumor and confusion occasionally gave way to quietly ecstatic idylls, and where nothing seemed fixed or constant. Sections of the novel follow a trio of expatriates living in northern Brooklyn, and Pletzinger gets the details beautifully precise — drinks at Enids, walks home past Settepanni Bakery. (As with Bryan Charles’s There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, there’s more than a little disorientation that comes from reading a book and realizing that you and the author were likely at the same bars at the same times.)

Pletzinger isn’t just out to evoke New York City in the wake of tragedy, however. The Dirk Svensson we encounter in 2001 is a damaged man, flailing through relationships with those closest to him and staggering through hardly sober nights. Four years later, when an academic-turned-journalist named Daniel Mandelkern — our other narrator here — travels to Italy to interview Svensson, he finds the onetime fuckup much more grounded: sobered (though not sober) and capable of having created an acclaimed children’s book. Even as Mandelkern flashes back over his own life, a larger question looms: what exactly happened to Svensson to change him so substantially?

Of course, with the bulk of the review done, I realize we’ve barely touched on Mandelkern, who’s our primary point of entry into this world, and whose agonizing over nearly everything — his marriage, the ethical quandaries that arise when profiling Svensson, his attraction to Tuuli, a woman with a nebulous connection to Svensson — provides a never-ending font of tension.  Pletzinger also understands the strange ways in which academia and the world of journalism do and don’t dovetail, and that adds an ethical layer to the tension present here. And his structure, opening with a desperate Mandelkern sending a desperate letter written across seven postcards to his wife and leaping back in time from there, prompts a shock of recognition whenever he acquires another postcard; the inevitable looms in close proximity.

Considering the rich density of plot, of character, and of scope here, there are certain places where the novel doesn’t entirely click. The chronology by which Svensson goes from dissolute to internationally acclaimed seems overly accelerated, and at times the parallels between the voices of Mandelkern and New York-era Svensson seem too neat. (Admittedly, Mandelkern does riff on this, commenting on the blurring of identities between journalist and subject.) But in the end, it’s the contradictions at the heart of this book that fascinate: the way its protagonists elude societies large and small; the way isolation fuels both creativity and depression; the haunting questions Pletzinger leaves unresolved. There’s a lot of ground covered here, and Pletzinger tells a story that earns its scope.