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Outside the Dog Museum
Jonathan Carroll
Tor Orb, 268 pages

Outside the Dog Museum
Jonathan Carroll
Jonathan Carroll was born in 1949 in New York. His father was a screenwriter; his mother an actress and lyricist. He attended Rutgers University then the University of Virginia. He became an English teacher, eventually moving to the American International School in Vienna, Austria, in 1974. Carroll still lives in Vienna with his family.

Jonathan Carroll Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: White Apples
SF Site Review: Voice of Our Shadow
SF Site Review: The Wooden Sea
SF Site Interview: Jonathan Carroll
SF Site Reading List: Jonathan Carroll
SF Site Review: The Land of Laughs
SF Site Review: The Marriage of Sticks and Kissing the Beehive
SF Site Review: The Marriage of Sticks
SF Site Review: Kissing the Beehive
SF Site Review: From The Teeth of Angels

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

My car CD player is broken, so lately I've taken to relying on the FM scan button in hopes of finding something vaguely interesting among the standard handful of commercial formats. Which is how I strayed across Pastor Bob.

As a non-believer, I have little in common intellectually, theologically, or morally with fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity. What we do share, however, is a love of storytelling. Christian radio preachers are always telling stories. The stories, of course, are from the Bible, and typically the intent is to explain what the stories mean, not let the audience savor the unfolding narratives to figure them out on their own. Pastor Bob, in particular, is a funny guy, full of his own tall tales that render simple moral precepts. I kind of like him, even as I sometimes find it hard to take him seriously.

Where we fundamentally disagree is that Pastor Bob and his ilk don't see these stories as metaphors, but as literal truth. Because Biblical literature is treated as nothing more than instructive parable, consequently they frequently fail to see meaning or nuances beyond what immediately props up their belief system.

All of which brings me to Jonathan Carroll's Outside the Dog Museum, which the folks from the Orb imprint of TOR have kindly reissued. Pastor Bob would like this morality tale extrapolated from a famous -- even to those who haven't read it -- Biblical legend.

And therein lies the crux of the problem.

First off, let me point out that I am a "Carroll-head." From the Teeth of Angels provides one of the best articulations I know about countering mortality. And unlike some weightier tomes, such as the Myth of Sisyphus, it has the distinct advantage of being funnier.

Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to like Outside the Dog Museum, it just struck me as something that was too obvious, too, well, like a story Pastor Bob would tell.

The narrator is Harry Radcliffe, a celebrated architect, divorced but still on good terms personally and professionally with his former spouse (whose character is dropped almost as soon as she is introduced), currently seemingly equally in love with two different women. Harry keeps telling us what an asshole he is, but he never really seems that way. He just seems confused. And, hey, aren't we all, particularly when it comes to matters of making commitments. (And, okay, as a guy I might have a different take on this -- perhaps women readers will find Harry to be more of a jerk than I do.)

The Sultan of Saru, who is decidedly a good guy, is pestering Harry to build an edifice, the titular dog museum, that doesn't much interest Harry. Unfolding events persuade Harry to accept the job, that in turn not only becomes a life transformational event for Harry, but also portends drastic cosmic implications as humans understand, or rather misunderstand, them.

Part of Harry's task is to make people from different cultures speaking different languages work together to complete a one-of-a-kind architectural marvel. And what Biblical story might that remind you of? Similarly obvious is that the name of Sultan's brother heading a take-no-prisoners counter-insurgency, is Cthulu, H.P. Lovecraft's famed mythology of meaninglessness, which the novel's resolution counterpoints.

None of this rises much higher than Pastor Bob's simplistic bromides. A self-centered soul in the midst of catastrophe makes a bargain with unexpected results, achieves self-actualization and learns a life lesson.

Ho, hum.

Of course, this being Carroll, there are some rewards beyond these kinds of Oprah moments. In addition to the usual suspects you'd expect from Carroll -- a dog, eccentric characters that serve as spiritual guides, improbable events that seem no more fantastical to the characters than, say, the newest iPod -- there's the odd humor. For example, the Sultan is considered a human incarnation of divinity, thus justifying this opening line: "I'd just bitten the hand that fed me when God called again."

If you're already a fan, then you'll probably enjoy this novel anyway. The uninitiated, however, may wonder what all the fuss is about.

Copyright © 2006 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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