Here are some recently published books: Ed Yong, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us; Philip Ball, The Book of Minds: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings, from Animals to AI to Aliens; Justin Gregg, If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity; and James Bridle, Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence. I could go on—we could add that new book I cited a couple of weeks ago, When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness, by David M. Peña-Guzmán, not to mention Seirian Sumner’s Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps—but you get the drift. You can learn a lot from these books even if you are (as I am) an unrepentant believer in what gets called, deprecatingly, “human exceptionalism.”
You could also settle down with Spencer Quinn’s new novel, Bark to the Future, the thirteenth installment in his unfailingly rewarding Chet & Bernie series. As much as any science-writing I have read, these novels offer an immersion in “the senses of animals” (dogs in particular, but not only dogs!) that Ed Yong explores in his astounding book, at the same time deepening our sense of the human. (The title of Yong’s first chapter, “Leaking Sacks of Chemicals: Smells and Tastes,” immediately made me think of Chet & Bernie.) And all this is done within the conventions of the crime novel, suitably torqued, while offering one of the richest depictions of friendship I have encountered in a lifetime of reading.
Did I mention that these books are exceedingly funny? (I often laugh out loud while reading them.) But they are not only funny, and winsome: they are also biting in their depiction of human hubris and waste and self-indulgence, even as they entertain. And on top of all that, they are the work of a writer who is fascinated by the way fiction works; if you share that fascination, you are in for a treat.
Here's the premise of the series: Chet, the narrating dog, assists Bernie Little, who presides over the one-man and one-dog Little Detective Agency. (Please note: Chet is not a “talking dog.” But by the alchemy of fiction, he is granted the power to tell the story. If that’s a deal-breaker for you, so be it.) They are based in “the Valley,” as Chet says (in Arizona; Chet’s grasp of geography is even more limited than mine). Their latest adventure—the punning title, Bark to the Future, gives us a hint—leads back to events that took place when Bernie was a star pitcher in high school, with results in which comedy and pathos are intertwined.
But would it work for you, if you haven’t read any of the earlier books, to try this one? I think so. And if you enjoy it, as I hope you will, you could then go back to the start of the series, Dog on It, and continue from there as long as you are enjoying the ride.
Speaking of the ride, a recurring scenario features Bernie and Chet on the road in a Porsche with a lot of mileage (they run through a succession of these in the course of the books; Chet loves nothing more than riding shotgun with Bernie at the wheel). Bark to the Future begins with just such a scene, in which they are trying out their latest new/old Porsche, which has a souped-up engine:
“Woo eee!” Bernie cried as he brought us safely down, all tires on the pavement. “Woo eee, baby!”
As for me, I got my head and body properly organized, sat up straight, and howled at the moon, although it was daytime and cloudy to boot. We had a beast on our side. No one could touch us now, although the truth was no one ever had before. I felt tip-top, or even better.
Chet is a fallible narrator, not an unreliable narrator. The distinction is crucial. His fallibility is foregrounded, but within his limits he is absolutely reliable. Indeed, he often imparts to us information the significance of which he is unaware; that’s part of the fun.
For reasons I haven’t been able to figure out, friendship—deep, genuine friendship—gets short shrift in contemporary fiction. I have noticed that in part because my wife Wendy and I are so thankful for our friends, some of whom we’ve known for decades, others only recently, and many in between. The Chet & Bernie books are wonderful exceptions, and I am immensely grateful for them.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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Image by Ludovic Bertron licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.