June 30, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain

After my last book post, it may seem that I should write about THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN from the perspective of a dog. But dogs can't read, silly.

Even Enzo, the dog who narrates Garth Stein's novel, hasn't managed literacy, though he understands speech and tries to lead as human a life as possible. It's Enzo's fascination with and near-complete comprehension of the human world that makes him work as the narrator of this story, which is mostly about the humans Enzo lives with. And it's the canine point of view that made this book a bestseller. The family story has strong characters and a compelling plot that brought me to tears several times, but if it had been published without a dog narrating, I doubt it would have been deemed anything special.

I'm all for writers choosing unusual points of view, but this has to be done with careful thought in order to be effective. If Stein had let the family dog narrate his story simply so that his manuscript would stand out, it would have felt gratuitous. But he gave Enzo a deep and unexpected personality, and he made purposeful decisions about what Enzo does and doesn't witness and understand, so the point of view becomes integral to the story. This would be a very different book with another narrator.

Stein discusses his choice in a FAQ for the book (contains spoilers):

Using a dog as a narrator has limitations and it has advantages. The limitations are that a dog cannot speak. A dog has no thumbs. A dog can't communicate his thoughts except with gestures. Dogs are not allowed certain places. The advantages are that a dog has special access: people will say things in front of dogs because it is assumed that a dog doesn't understand. Dogs are allowed to witness certain things because they aren't people and have no judgment.

Though I love dogs, I avoided THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN when it first came out, partly because I was suspicious of the hype, and partly because race car driving is a big part of the story, and I'm not interested in race cars. I forgot something I've probably forgotten before: I'm always fascinated when a novel incorporates descriptions of the expert knowledge required to do something, as long as the explanations are well-written and passionate. After reading this book, I have a much greater appreciation of the art of racing (in the rain or otherwise), and I'm glad Enzo took me along for the ride.

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