Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller: What I'm Reading

Carol Emshwiller was one of the Guests of Honor at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs last week, and the convention goody bag included a new edition of her comic novel Carmen Dog from Peapod Classics. Peapod is an imprint from the folks who produce Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, a small press specializing in books that blur genre distinctions, the true "literature of the fantastic". I went back to my hotel room for a nap before the evening festivities, pulled Carmen Dog out of the duffel, and instead of napping read the entire book front to back, giggling and smiling most of the way.

Carmen Dog has been called Emshwiller's Candide. It is sweet, short, funny, hard-eyed and true, but its heroine, although a true innocent, is more intelligent, decisive and resourceful than Voltaire's Candide. The villiains are confounded but have a softer landing than those in Voltaire, and although the world is turned upside down, no one has their buttocks eaten by pirates, and there is a happy, uptopian ending.

Pooch (the people she encounters think she's saying "Pucci") is a golden-haired dog who is evolving into a human girl. This phenomenon is happening all over the world, like one of those unexplained sea-changes in J.G. Ballard. Human women are devolving into animals-- Pooch's mistress has turned into a drunken snapping turtle, wallowing in the bathtub-- and female animals are evolving up into humans. On both extremes, their personalities reflect their animal nature: a human socialite with borderline personality disorder becomes a self-destructive, angry wolverine, attacking the Plaza Hotel, while Pickle the amiable guinea-pig has grown into a cozy midwife, puzzled by other's cruelty when there are more important things to be done.

The males, of course, are baffled and blaming the women for the changes-- this has finally proved to some of them that women are, indeed, a separate race-- and although the villains are quite monstrous, Carmen Dog is too forgiving of human foibles to be called an anti-male tract. If you're interested, Peapod Classics has posted a sample chapter here:
.... What the doctor doesn't mention is how many similar cases he's seen and just how far some of them have progressed. He doesn't realize that the husband wouldn't be a bit surprised, that the husband realizes from personal experience that some of the women are already talking in grunts (if at all), while others, who used to speak only in guttural mutterings, are now mouthing long, erudite words such as teleological, hymenopterology, omphalos, and quagmire.

Christine, for instance, red-headed, plump Christine, who had several times been taken for an orangutan, can now argue her way out of any zoo no matter what the educational level of the keepers. Mona, on the other hand, can almost fly (though it is unlikely that she ever really will). Her husband complains that she makes funny noises, but her children like her all the better for it. John is divorcing Lucille in order to marry Betty (quite bearish still, but evidently what John wants). Mabel has only recently been given a name at all.

This is not the case with Pooch, who has had a name from the start and who now finds herself taking over more and more of the housework and baby-sitting, yet continues to be faithful. Her mistress is deteriorating rapidly -- mouth grown wide, eyes suspicious. Her master (the man who visited the doctor, as mentioned a moment ago) has tried all the experts he can afford and they are now, both of them, in psychotherapy, as the doctor recommended, but it looks as though the marriage can't last.

In other homes, similar dramas are playing themselves out in various ways. A guinea pig named Cucumber (because of her shape, and sometimes affectionately referred to as "Pickle"), although not very smart, is taking over several of the easier tasks in the house next door. Cucumber has spoken to Pooch on several occasions, but Pooch finds it hard to be with her because she feels that she, Pooch, needs to hold herself back. Sometimes she feels she'd like to grab hold of Cucumber by the back of the neck and give her a good shake. And for no reason. Phillip, the king snake down the block, has turned out to be female after all, as has Humphrey the iguana. Neither of them, it is clear, has much maternal instinct, though, and they were last seen heading south on Route 95 with not so much as a good-bye kiss to the little ones who had watched over them tenderly, albeit not very consistently.

On the other hand, Pooch is doing the best she can for her foster family. (The mistress has taken to drink and sleeps a good bit of the day, but bites out viciously if provoked. Not that she hasn't done something of the sort to some degree all her life, but before it had usually been a quick slap.) Pooch now does the shopping as well as the laundry, diapering, and much of the cooking, though she is hardly as old as the oldest child she's looking after. Pooch, who had always been smiling and playful, now has become serious and sad, watching over everything with her big, golden-brown, color-blind eyes.


1 comment:

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Maybe I should blame my evolution on JG Ballard. The book sounds interesting, most goody bags are filled with slop and bookmarks. Word verification repogmf, what a repo man says before his throat is slit.