Dog Symphony: A Review.
Dog Symphony (New Directions, August 2018), the third and latest novel from Sam Munson, is especially focused on building a sense of place. This is certainly true in the setting of the novel, which takes place over the course of several nights and days in a surreal Buenos Aires. We see the city through the eyes of Boris Leonidovich, a historian of prison architecture who has come to Argentina to present a paper and to reconnect with a colleague and occasional lover. From the initial descriptions of Boris's profession and his relationship with academia ("moronism" is a word used frequently), the stage seems set for yet another scholarly satire. But Munson has something far stranger in mind for his audience.
From the moment Boris touches down in the city it is clear that something is amiss: the airport is patrolled by officials in mysterious uniforms, and Boris's colleague is unreachable. These oddities pale in comparison to the events soon to unfold: during a walk on his first night in town, Boris is swept up in a huge pack of dogs streaming through the city streets, a pack comprised of all different breeds and fueled by bowls of raw meat left in front of seemingly every doorstep. Carried along by this current and aided (or hindered) by a cast of colorful characters, Boris descends into a complex mystery involving the dogs and the designs that sinister forces have for the future of the city.
To say more would deprive the reader of the surprises, both whimsical and tragic, that Munson has prepared in abundance. Indeed, a large part of the novel's fun flows from following Boris while knowing as little as he does, struggling to make sense of things as he moves from one locale to the next, exhausted and confused. Much of Munson's success with this hallucinatory Odyssey is due to his preoccupation with space: the Buenos Aires of the novel is richly layered with detail and depth. Streets are especially important here, both as avenues to funnel the masses of dogs, as well as markers for Boris to reflect on his location and circumstances. Boris ascribes his knowledge of the city streets to his obsessive love of maps, and the meticulous descriptions make one wonder if the author doesn't share the same infatuation.
Yet for all its cartographic ambitions, the novel is equally, if not more, concerned with its place within literature. Munson firmly situates the slim and sharply funny volume within the tradition of twentieth-century Hispanophonic literature, and in particular within the genre of magical realism so prevalent among Latin and South American writers. Readers fond of such stylings will quickly spot copious references and allusions sprinkled throughout. These range from direct name-drops (befitting the novel's setting in Argentina, specific mentions are made of titans like Borges, Aira, and Cortazar), to casual asides, and to more subtle evocations of theme, including the light undercurrent of political critique running beneath the main plot. The praise is not universal, however; on the surface level, Boris's narration is disparaging of this literature, indeed, of twentieth-century literature as a whole, with the character even falling comically ill whenever the sun sets in a way that is "literary." This avowed distaste supplies delicious irony throughout the novel, as the narrator is sucked ever deeper into one of the plotlines he seems eager to keep at a distance.
As is often the case in the magical realist genre, the novel revels in exploring social structures of labyrinthine complexity: the shifting hallways of a university, the dizzying array of titles at an academic convention, the Byzantine political entities lurking in the background with shadowy agendas. Likewise, following the genre's usual experiments with style, here too can be found a fascination with language and its quirks, a marveling at the sonorous sounds of words, the sharpness of dialogue, and the rhythm of sentences. Munson also does not pass on the abundant opportunities for puns and wordplay offered by the novel's plot: sharp-eyed readers will enjoy more than one mention of canine teeth, for example.
For readers fond of and familiar with the elements of magical realism, Dog Symphony offers a compact gallery of literary pleasures.
Following the intracies of the plot may necessite a second reading; once the action escalates in the second act, the narrative proceeds somewhat breathlessly, and finer details blur into the frenetic pacing. Yet repeat visits will not be unrewarding. Indeed, the novel boasts such allusive depth that readers are sure to discover new and intruig-ing moments. Certainly readers will relish the opportunity to return to the Buenos Aires streets, to explore the mysteries of the city, and to flow with the dogs into an uncertain night.