I have to thank The Beguiling for putting this in my hands. I was wandering the store, looking for something new, something I hadn’t tried, something unexpected and exciting, and P. reached for this enormous tome. After first confirming that I am a vegetarian, and the reasons for my vegetarianism. Which was intriguing in and of itself. What kind of book prefers vegetarian readers? And it was sealed in plastic so all I had to go on was the fact that it wanted vegetarians and the enticing drawing/photograph of a lamb in red on the front, despite the fact that the title so clearly asserted the importance of a dog.
I finished Duncan the Wonder Dog a while ago, and have since been mulling it over, turning the whole thing round in my mind, trying to decide just what to say about it. Not because I didn’t like it, but because there is just so much to say that I honestly don’t know where I should start. Hines is enormously ambitious in Duncan and not afraid to push his story and his art to the limits. The book is huge, almost four hundred, dense pages long, each page twice the size of your average graphic novel, and yet, I felt like he could have filled many more of these enormous pages with collages, cartoon-ish people, haunting landscapes, pure abstractions and all the other million styles he manages to cram here.
The story too is not easy to pin down. The basic premise underlying it all, though, is that the animals talk. Like people. But it’s not some fairytale thing where Chicken Little runs around freaking out to all the other animals. This is animals as they are in the world we live in, except that they have the power of speech. And this simple fact changes everything in a heartwrenching kind of way. In one story branch that really stabbed hundreds of tiny knives into my heart, a cow refuses to get out of the back of a truck, no matter how the wranglers alternately curse and persuade her. After they finally tie a rope around her neck and yank her out of the truck, breaking her leg, she tells them, “I saw our prints (breath)…I saw them in the dirt (breath)…going in (breath)…But I didn’t see any (breath)…going out (breath)…”
Thankfully, that’s as close as Hines gets to the slaughterhouse. But even when dealing with animals that aren’t destined for food, by giving them voices, he changes the dynamics of every situation. Imagine if your dog could talk. And not just the sort of silly talk we usually assign to dogs, but real conversation. Reading this book, I was constantly wondering how any of the people in it were able to keep pets. I can’t even keep pets when they don’t talk. In Duncan, animals talk to each other, they talk to people, a number of them read. And many of them are fighting for their rights, insisting that they don’t deserve to be treated so brutally.
There are two main factions in this fight for rights, the more level-headed bureaucratic side whose viewpoint is embodied in the mandrill Voltaire, who wears a suit, goes to meetings and works for change from the inside. On the other side is Pompeii, an angry, angry macaque who leads the animal rights organization Orapost. A bomb goes off at a college in California and it’s assumed to be the work of Orapost, so Jack Hammond is called in from his vacation and put on the case because of his involvement in a previous Orapost case. This bomb thread keeps the other threads of the narrative tied together, albeit loosely. The story moves around from the obviously connected to the much less so.
Given that this is to be a nine-volume series, it’s hardly surprising that all would not be revealed in Show One, but I admit that I wish more was revealed. There’s a lot of atmosphere building here, and perhaps because I was reading it in bits and pieces whenever I had time, I found myself getting lost from time to time, and having to flip back to different sections to remind myself of characters and motivations. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, it’s basically what I have to do every time I read Dostoevsky, and I am a firm believer in reading Dostoevsky. A second reading is definitely merited and worthwhile here.
Because I love the moody greys, how Hines slips in and out of the more linear narrative that threads through the book. I love the many side stories, just as lovingly told as the main stories. And the whole book is just so beautiful. Hines mixes it up every which way, incorporating collaged page with paragraphs from philosophic texts with drawn-over photographs with almost spooky painted landscapes. He effortlessly switches style and tone to match the subject matter of the story branch. I found myself actually marvelling when I turned the page sometimes, surprised by the range and depth I found. I don’t know how it is I’d never heard of Hines or this book before because it is clearly something I was meant to read. And now all I have to do is wait for Show Two. My fingers are crossed that Hines drew all the books and then published Show One so that I don’t have to wait too long, but I have a feeling I might be overly optimistic.