The Dogs of Babel

The Dogs of Babel

3.9 158
by Carolyn Parkhurst

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In Paul's fantastic and even perilous search for the truth about his wife's death, he abandons his everyday life to embark on a series of experiments designed to teach his dog Lorelei to communicate. Could she really give him the answers he is looking for?See more details below


In Paul's fantastic and even perilous search for the truth about his wife's death, he abandons his everyday life to embark on a series of experiments designed to teach his dog Lorelei to communicate. Could she really give him the answers he is looking for?

Editorial Reviews

Parkhurst does magnificently...illuminates the emotional landscape that faces a surviving spouse...unforgettable.
Entertainment Weekly
...shimmers with idiosyncratic intrigue...Parkhurst tells her tale with considerable skill...a humanistic parable of the heart's confusions..
a heartbreaking exploration of memory and language, grief and redemption.
Marie Claire
a quirky and endearing love triangle..
a neatly, almost perfectly constructed novel...
The New Yorker
The premise is simple, if strange. Paul, a linguistics professor, comes home from work to discover that his wife has fallen fatally from their back-yard apple tree. The only witness to the event is the family dog, Lorelei. Desperate to find out whether his wife's death was suicide or accident, Paul does what any linguistics professor would do: he sets about teaching the dog to talk so that she can tell him what happened. In between accounts of talking-dog experiments, we get flashbacks to Paul's blissful married life. His wife, a mask-maker who played whimsical trickster to his straitlaced academic, occasionally dabbled in the occult, and this gives Parkhurst the opportunity to write about tarot readings, spooky masks, and dream journals. But the mysticism, though ably rendered, gets tedious, while Parkhurst rushes through the experiments with the dog -- the peg from which the book hangs -- developing neither verisimilitude nor artful absurdity.
The New York Times
This is a book that wears its symbolism on its sleeve, at great risk but with startling effectiveness. In fact, Lexy is a square egg herself, dangerously unable to fit the predictable wifely mold. And her scalp is tattooed with snakes, a sign of her troubled adolescence and her inner Medusa. What's more, Ms. Parkhurst dares to court heavy-handedness by making Lexy an artist who creates masks. Lexy wears the face of Lorelei at one point; she wears Paul's at another. — Janet Maslin
The Los Angeles Times
The Dogs of Babel is a cuddly tall tale about the rituals of grief. Yet it poses some uncomfortable questions: Are spouses as unknowable as pets? Can we help but go to absurd lengths to avoid confronting the reality of death? Can radical surgery improve a dog's likelihood of talking? In the end, Lorelei does tell Paul everything he needs to know. But, like this strange and winning novel, he uncovers truth in a wholly unexpected way. — Mark Rozzo
The Washington Post
In the brief union of Lexy and Paul, author Carolyn Parkhurst has created two compelling characters to take us through the shoals and delights of falling in love and into the calmer and sometimes more dangerous world of marriage. By interweaving Paul's project on canine linguistics with his memories of Lexy, Parkhurst shows how the way things end can change the way we see the past. — Susan Dooley
Publishers Weekly
Consumed with grief and obsessed with unlocking the mystery of wife Lexy's fatal fall from a backyard apple tree, 43-year-old linguistics professor Paul Iverson describes himself as "a man who wants to know things no human being could tell him." Unsure whether Lexy's death was an accident or suicide and confronted with some puzzling "clues" she left behind, Paul soon undertakes the bizarre and seemingly impossible task of teaching the tragedy's only witness, his beloved Rhodesian Ridgeback dog, to speak. Seamlessly shifting between characters and accents (including a memorable performance as a Southern fortune teller), stage, television and voice-over actor Singer gives an impeccable, unabridged narration. He deftly handles Parkhurst's frequent use of flashbacks to the couple's early courtship and marriages and has a keen ability to vocally reflect the slightest change in mood. While some listeners may find the animal language acquisition subplot farfetched at points, Parkhurst's attention to human emotion and response bring a poignancy to the unique story line that translates well to audio. Simultaneous release with the Little, Brown hardcover (Forecasts, Mar. 3) (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
When the narrator's wife, Lexy, dies in a fall from a backyard apple tree, the only witness is their dog, Lorelei. In his grief, Paul, who is a trained linguist, decides that the dog knows something about the death and tries to teach him to communicate. Even he realizes how ludicrous this is, but he can't seem to move on to the next phase of his life until he solves the mystery of her death. Gradually he gathers clues that Lexy left him and comes to understand what really happened. The book is about communication and how difficult it is to connect with another person and yet how desperately we need to. Some of the symbolism in the story is obvious; for instance, Lexy is a mask-maker and a truth hider. Paul is a linguist who can't understand his wife's needs until she is dead. Parkhurst is able to take an almost silly premise, a grieving man tries to teach his dog to talk, and turn it into a story of understanding and eventual communication and the passage from life's darkest moments to the gradual lifting of darkness. It is quietly wonderful and filled with insight. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Little, Brown, Back Bay, 264p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
When Paul Iverson discovers that his wife has died in a fall from a tree, he does something unusual. Suspecting that her death was not an accident-there are odd clues, like the reshuffled books on the shelf-he uses his training as a linguist to try to teach their dog, Lorelei, to talk so that he can reconstruct Lexy's last hours. As Paul slips into ever more desperate behavior, we hear an account of his and Lexy's courtship and marriage-the tender, tentative union of two damaged people. But then Paul contacts a man convicted of operating on dogs to install vocal chords, and what had been a poignant, affecting tale turns truly frightening (dog lovers, beware). And then it is over; Paul learns that there are some things you should never do, even for love, and turns the memory of Lexy into a gift. Parkhurst delivers a remarkable debut in quiet, authoritative prose. It's especially noteworthy that Paul's crusade does not seem preposterous and that while the author offers an affecting message, her characters don't seem like message bearers but distinctive, lively individuals you might like to know. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/03.]-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
The brilliance ... lies in the subtle buildup of emotion ... and ... how powerfully that emotional wave hits..... An unforgettable debut.
Kirkus Reviews
A workmanlike, confusedly titled debut about the death of a morbid young wife. Paul Iverson, a regular-guy linguistics prof at a mid-Atlantic university, receives the news that his wife of several years, Lexy, has fallen to her death from a backyard apple tree. Only her beloved dog Lorelei, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, has witnessed the fall and the last hours of her life, and Paul, grieving and numb, embarks on the professionally estranging work of trying to get Lorelei to tell (literally) what she knows. Oddities emerge--like the fact that Lexy cooked and fed the dog a steak and rearranged the bookshelves before she climbed and fell--suggesting that Lexy, a maker of festive masks from clay, paper, and varnish, had an ulterior motive in climbing the tree. In his disembodied depression, Paul researches possibilities of language acquisition in dogs and even contacts an imprisoned canine mutilator convicted of conducting surgery on dogs to reshape their palates for talking. When Paul attends a meeting of the Cerberus Society, the story turns really bizarre, but only briefly: Parkhurst adheres to the gradual, fairly tedious unraveling of Paul and Lexy’s courtship and married life. The lack of detail about Lexy’s past is covered by her charmingly erratic behavior as a newlywed--the playful thespian masks she fashions for weddings and plays transforming into death masks. But there’s an underlying fissure in this conflicted first novel, the misdirected title a clue: it’s a simple love story without the gumption to go in more unsettling directions à la Patrick McGrath. The highlight isn’t the couple’s first date at Disney World, but the kitschy TV medium Lady Arabelle’s tarot card reading of Lexy’slast night alive. Paul is an emotionally bumbling Everyman no one can dislike, simply desiring a stable home and family, while his wife’s coreless irresolution seems without substance and ultimately merely irritating. A compelling idea fizzles out into anticlimactic detail.

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Little, Brown and Company
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5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

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Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death. There were no witnesses, save our dog, Lorelei; it was a weekday afternoon, and none of our neighbors were at home, sitting in their kitchens with their windows open, to hear whether, in that brief midair moment, my wife cried out or gasped or made no sound at all. None of them were working in their yards, enjoying the last of the warm weather, to see whether her body crumpled before she hit the ground, or whether she tried to right herself in the air, or whether she simply spread her arms open to the sky.

I was in the university library when it happened, doing research for a paper I was working on for an upcoming symposium. I had an evening seminar to teach that night, and if I hadn't called home to tell Lexy something interesting I'd read about a movie she'd been wanting to see, then I might have taught my class, gone out for my weekly beer with my graduate students, and spent a few last hours of normalcy, happily unaware that my yard was full of policemen kneeling in the dirt.

As it was, though, I dialed my home number and a man answered the phone. "Ransome residence," he said.

I paused for a moment, confused. I scanned my mental catalog of male voices, friends and relatives who might possibly be at the house for one reason or another, but I couldn't match any of them to the voice on the other end of the line. I was a bit thrown by the phrase "Ransome residence," as well; my last name is Iverson, and to hear a strange man refer to my house as if only Lexy lived there gave me the strange feeling that I'd somehow, in the course of a day, been written out of my own life's script.

"May I speak to Lexy?" I said finally.

"May I ask who's calling?" the man said.

"This is her husband, Paul. Iverson."

"Mr. Iverson, this is Detective Anthony Stack. I'm going to need you to come home now. There's been an accident."

Apparently Lorelei was the one responsible for summoning the police. As our neighbors returned home from work, one by one, they heard her endless, keening howl coming from our yard. They knew Lorelei, most of them, and were used to hearing her bark, barrel-chested and deep, when she chased birds and squirrels around the yard. But they'd never heard her make a sound like this. Our neighbor to the left, Jim Perasso, was the first to peer over the top of our fence and make the discovery. It was already dark out - the days were getting shorter, and dusk was coming earlier and earlier each day - but as Lorelei ran frantically between the apple tree and the back door of the house, her movements activated our backyard motion-sensor lights. With every circle Lorelei made, she'd pause to nudge Lexy's body with her nose, stopping long enough to allow the lights to go out; then, as she resumed her wild race to each corner of the yard, the lights would go on again. It was through this surreal, strobelike flickering that Jim saw Lexy lying beneath the tree and called 911.

When I arrived, there was police tape marking off the backyard gate, and the man I had spoken to on the phone met me as I walked across the lawn. He introduced himself again and took me to sit in the living room. I followed him dumbly, all my half-questions stalled by the dread that seemed to have stopped the passage of air through my lungs. I guess I knew what was coming. Already, the house felt still and bare, as if it had been emptied of all the living complexity that had been there when I left. Even Lorelei was gone, having been sedated and taken away by animal control for the night.

Detective Stack told me what had happened as I sat there, numb.

"Do you have any idea what your wife might have been doing in the tree?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said. She had never, in the time I had known her, shown any interest in climbing trees, and this one couldn't have been an easy one to start with. The apple tree in our yard is unusually tall, a monster compared to the dwarf varieties you see in orchards and autumn pick-your-own farms. We had neglected it, not pruning it even once in the time we'd lived there, and it had grown to an unruly height of twenty-five or thirty feet. I couldn't begin to guess what she might have been doing up there. Detective Stack was watching me closely. "Maybe she wanted to pick some apples," I said weakly.

"Well, that seems to be the logical answer." He looked at me and at the floor. "It seems pretty clear to us that your wife's death was an accident, but in cases like this when there are no witnesses, we need to do a brief investigation to rule out suicide. I have to ask - did your wife seem at all depressed lately? Did she ever mention suicide, even in a casual way?"

I shook my head.

"I didn't think so," he said. "I just had to ask."

When the men in the yard finished taking their pictures and collecting their evidence, Detective Stack talked to them and reported back to me that everyone was satisfied. It had been an accident, no question. Apparently there are two ways of falling, and each one tells a story. A person who jumps from a great height, even as high as seven or eight floors up, can control the way she falls; if she lands on her feet, she may sustain great injuries to her legs and spine, but she may survive. And if she does not survive, then the particular way her bones break, the way her ankles and knee shatter from the stress of the impact, lets us know that her jump was intentional. But a person who reaches the top branches of an apple tree, twenty-five feet off the ground, and simply loses her footing has no control over how she falls. She may tumble in the air and land on her stomach or her back or her head. She may land with her skin intact and still break every bone and crush every organ inside her. This is how we decide what is an accident and what is not. When they found Lexy, she was lying faceup, and her neck was broken. This is how we know that Lexy didn't jump.

Later, after the police had left and Lexy's body had been taken away, I went out into the yard. Underneath the tree, there was a scattering of apples that had fallen to the ground. Had Lexy climbed the tree to pick the last of the apples before they grew rotten on the branches? Perhaps she was going to bake something; perhaps she was going to put them in a pretty bowl and set them someplace sunny for us to snack on. I gathered them up carefully and brought them inside. I kept them on the kitchen table until the smell of their sweet rot began to draw flies.

It wasn't until a few days after the funeral that I began to find certain clues - well, I hesitate to use the word "clues," which excludes the possibility of sheer coincidence or overanalyzing on my part. To say I found clues would suggest that someone had laid out a careful trail of bits of information with the aim of leading me to a conclusion so well hidden and yet so obvious that its accuracy could not be disputed. I don't expect I'll be that lucky. I'll say instead that I began to discover certain anomalies, certain incongruities, that suggested that the day of Lexy's death had not been a usual day.

The first of these anomalies had to do with our bookshelves. Lexy and I were both big readers, and our bookshelves, like anyone's, I imagine, were halfheartedly organized according to a number of different systems. On some shelves, books were grouped by size, big coffee-table books all together on the bottommost shelf, and mass-market paperbacks crammed in where nothing else would fit. There were enclaves of books grouped by subject - our cookbooks were all on the same shelf, for example - but this type of classification was too painstaking to carry very far. Finally, there were her books and my books - books whose subject matter reflected our own individual interests, and books each of us had owned before we were married that just ended up in their own sections. Beyond that, it was a hodge-podge. Even so, I came to have a sense of which books belonged where. A mental impression that I had seen the novel I had loved when I was twenty sitting snugly between a book of poems we'd received as a wedding gift and a sci-fi thriller I had read on the beach one summer. If you asked me where you might find a particular textbook I coauthored, I could point you right to its place between a Beatles biography and a book about how to brew your own beer. This is how I know that Lexy rearranged the books before she died.

The second anomaly has to do with Lorelei. As far as I can piece together, it seems that Lexy took a steak from the refrigerator, one we'd been planning to barbecue that night on the grill, cooked it, and gave it to the dog. At first I thought she must have eaten it herself and merely given Lorelei the bone to chew on - I found the bone several days later, hidden in a corner of the bedroom - but the thing is, there were no dirty plates or cutlery, only the frying pan sitting on the stove where she left it. The dishwasher was locked, having been run that morning after breakfast, and when I opened it up, I could still recognize my own handiwork in the way the dishes had been negotiated into place. The dishwasher hadn't been touched, the dish rack next to the sink was empty, and the dish towels weren't even moist. I have to conclude that one of two things happened: either Lexy surprised Lorelei with an unprecedented wealth of meat or she stood in our kitchen on the last day of her life and ate an entire twenty-ounce steak with her fingers. As I think about it now, it occurs to me that there might be a third scenario, and it might be the best one of all: perhaps the two of them shared it.

Maybe these events mean nothing. After all, I am a grieving man, and I am trying very hard to find some sense in my wife's death. But the evidence I have discovered is sufficiently strange to make me wonder what really happened that day, whether it was really a desire for apples that led my sweet wife to climb to the top of that tree. Lorelei is my witness, not just to Lexy's death itself but to all the events leading up to it. She watched Lexy move through her days and her nights. She was there for the unfolding of our marriage from its first day to its last. Simply put, she knows things I don't. I feel I must do whatever I can to unlock that knowledge.

Copyright © 2003 by Carolyn Parkhurst

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What People are saying about this

Richard McCann luminous, heartbreaking, comic, and daring-an astonishing debut.
Kermit Moyer
...a wonderfully original and richly imaginative novel.
John Searles
...[the] most unique and imaginative book I have read in recent times...daring, tender... could not put it down.
Anna Quindlen
Last summer I got this manuscript, I ripped through it in one day, loved it so much, and everyone who came to visit ripped through it …

From a plot point of view, it's a very compelling story, but for a writer it's about something very very important, and that's the limits of communication … that was really moving to me about this book, the sense that the intuition that comes with love and connection sometimes is as important or more important than what we say to each other.

Elizabeth Graver
...a strange, beautiful and very moving novel.

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