The following is from Joseph O’Neill’s novel The Dog. O’Neill is the author of the novels Netherland (which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award), The Breezes, and This Is the Life. He lives in New York and teaches at Bard College.
Of course Djibouti pops into my head for a reason. The French Foreign Legion has long maintained a presence there, and among the earliest and most reprehensibly innocent manifestations of my wish to flee New York was a fascination with the Légion étrangère. The men without a past! They suddenly struck me as marvelous, these white-kepi-wearing internationals whose predecessors fought famously, as my online searches revealed, at Magenta and at Puebla and at Dien Bien Phu, at Kolwezi and Bir Hakeim, at Aisne and Narvik and Fort Bamboo. Vous, légionnaires, vous êtes soldats pour mourir, et je vous envoie où l’on meurt. Unless the Wikipedia page misled, such were the exhortations that might drive into battle a fellow originating from any corner of the world yet beholden not at all to the compulsory systems of obligation to his native land. On the contrary, the legionnaire was bound only by the sincere comradeship into which he had voluntarily and humbly entered, a brotherly commitment captured with moving straightforwardness by his Code of Honor. I wanted to jump on a plane to Paris to sign up.
Though laughter would seem called for, I look back with astonishment and concern at this would-be soldier. How could this man, who had committed no crime and was guilty, to the best of my knowledge and belief, of not much more than the hurtfulness built into a human life—how could he find himself drawn to this absurd association of desperadoes and runaways? I remember how I yearned for a remote solitary fate causing shame and inconvenience to no one, for a life neither in the right nor in the wrong. Then along came Eddie Batros.
As the weeks passed and I heard nothing more from either Eddie or his brother and daily fought off the impulse to text Eddie for an update, it seemed that every five minutes brought mention of my new destination—Dubai. “God, I could be in my swimming pool in Dubai by now,” groaned an English flight attendant during a runway holdup. The Albanian manager of my local hardware store said to somebody, “They got a hotel at the bottom of the sea. They got millionaires, billionaires. Beckham lives there, Brad Pitt lives there, every day you got Lamborghinis crashing into other Lamborghinis, every day you got sunshine, the gas is basically free, they got no taxes, it’s heaven on earth.” Dubai was suddenly everywhere, even in the office. A team from Capital Markets went over there for a two-day consultation that dragged on for ten days, and the whole thing turned into such a billing blowout that Karen from Administration was forced to look into it. The traveling partners, Dzeko and Olsenburger, reported that the quantum of fees and disbursements had to be seen in the relevant factual matrix, namely that the client had put up the team in a seven-star hotel in a two-thousand-USD-a-night duplex suites offering a twelve-pillow pillow menu, a forty-two-inch plasma television set in a massive gold leaf frame, a rain room, a butler service, and Hermès shower gel and shampoo and unguents. Also significant, for the purpose of establishing an appropriate billing benchmark, was the client’s frankly carefree concierging of the hotel’s Rolls-Royce chauffeur service and its further concierging, on more than one occasion, of the hotel helicopter service. Moreover, excessive billing reasonableness by the firm might be perceived as verging on underbilling, a practice evidently inconsistent, in the eyes of this client, with a law firm of world-class standing. Afterward, getting hammered over cocktails, Dzeko more informally stated that these oil Arabs—he didn’t want to generalize, there were other kinds of Arabs of course—these particular oil Arabs either had no understanding of how money worked, no idea about profit or value, or else knew all about it but just didn’t give a shit and took a sick fucking pleasure in seeing these Westerners running around like pigs, snorting up cash on their hands and knees.
Dzeko was what we called a shovelhead, the kind of lawyer whose enormous industriousness is on the same intellectual plane as a ditchdigger’s, so it was surprising to hear him come out with these speculations. But Dubai had called forth his inner theorist. Such was the provocative power of the brand, which was never more powerful, of course, than in 2007. In the middle of one of those agitated and sometimes frightening bouts of Googling with which, in those days, I would pass away my evenings, I finally entered “dubai” into the search box rather than, say, “fertility + aging” or “psychopathy” or “narcissism” or “huge + breasts” or “tread + softly + dreams.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes, in part because I was not actually meant to believe my eyes or was meant to believe them in a special way, because many of the image results were not photographs of real Dubai but, rather, of renderings of a Dubai that was under construction or as yet conceptual. In any case I was left with the impression of a fantastic actual and/or soon-to-be city, an abracadabrapolis in which buildings flopped against each other and skyscrapers looked wobbly or were rumpled or might be twice as tall and slender as the Empire State Building, a city whose coastline featured bizarre man-made peninsulas as well as those already-famous artificial islets known as The World, so named because they were grouped to suggest, to a bird’s eye, a physical map of the world; a city where huge stilts rose out of the earth and disappeared like Jack’s beanstalk, three hundred meters up, into a synthetic cloud. Apparently the cloud contained, or would in due course contain, a platform with a park and other amenities.
The marketing strategists obviously were counting on me, the electronic traveler, to spread the word—Dubai! But if it’s possible to have a proper-noun antonym of Marco Polo, my name would be that antonym. To me, this wonderland was the same as any other human place: it boiled down to a bunch of rooms. I had a theory or two about rooms. Still fresh in my mind were those evenings when Jenn would pace in circles in our Gramercy Park one-bedroom in order to dramatize the one-bedroom’s long-term impracticality and reinforce the analysis she was offering, namely that all would be well if she and I, first, mentally let go of our apartment, the historic and rent-stabilized location of our love; second, acknowledged that it made sense to buy a place that would more readily accommodate the kid or kids who, in contradiction to her earlier feelings on the matter, Jenn now definitely felt ready to try to have; and accordingly, third, that all would be well as soon as we got ourselves a place with more rooms. I must have said little. I certainly failed to mention the following insight: if you cannot identify a single room in the world entry into which will make you joyful—if you cannot point to a particular actual or imagined room, among the billions of rooms in the world, and state truthfully, Inside that room I will find joy—well, then you have found a useful measure of where you stand in the matter of joy. And in the matter of rooms, too.
One way to sum up the stupidity of this phase of my life, a phase I’m afraid is ongoing, would be to call it the phase of insights.
During my first internet encounter with Dubai I had a vision (a thing of a split second) of myself, somehow disembodied, hurrying from tall building to tall building and from floor to floor and from room to room, endlessly making haste through one space after another and never finding good cause to stay or even pause. I associated this ghostly hurrier with one of those computer worms, created by the Israeli and/or American security agencies, whose function is to pass without trace from one computer to another, searching and searching until it finds what it seeks—whereupon it does damage. As a corrective to this unpleasant notion, perhaps, I developed an intensely enjoyable daydream of marooning myself on one of the outer islands of The World, say a fragment of “Scandinavia” or “Greenland,” and living in a no-frills if comfortable almost-carbon-neutral cabin, alone except perhaps for a pet dog (one of those breeds that specialize in running into and out of water), a palm tree or two, and the odd visiting bird. I went through a period of islomania the symptoms of which included discovering the word “islomania,” Googling “bee + loud + glade” and “islands + stream + Bee + Gees,” and going to sleep every night listening to “La Isla Bonita.”
Eventually I caved—I called Eddie for an update.
He told me everything was still on track but that the time line was kind of wavy on account mainly of Sandro’s scheduling issues but that bottom line everything was A-OK. “Listen, I’m so sorry about this, I feel terrible, I’m going to take care of this right away, it’s total bullshit.” He apologized at such length, incriminated himself so excessively, that I began to feel a puzzled guilt. Had I missed something? Had Eddie done something wrong? He had not; and, knowing Eddie as I now do, I can see this was probably a tactical mea culpa and he was just handling me the way one handles any problem. I’m not suggesting Eddie has a lowly nature; I just think he’s not above preferring business objectives to personal ones. (He subsequently admitted this to me, indeed insisted on it. He said (on the phone), “There’s something we need to be clear on. I’m not going to nickel-and-dime you. You’re going to get a sweet deal. Draft your own contract; do your worst. But you sign that dotted line, you’re playing with the big boys. Same thing between me and my brother and my father: no favors. No mulligans. No quarter asked or given.” Eddie laughed a little, and I laughed a little, too, in part at the thought of my grown-up old friend raising the Jolly Roger of business. “Got it,” I said. “Absolutely.”)
“No worries,” I said to him. “These things always take time.” I was being sincere. I didn’t hold the delay against Eddie. He wasn’t to know that the passage of time was unusually painful for me, that my circumstances at work were unbearable now that Jenn and I had separated and had to spend our days dodging each other at the office and being downright tortured by the other’s nearness.
(From what I gathered, in addition to the core pain of the ending of our partnership, Jenn was suffering horribly from “humiliation” that was never keener than when she was at work, surrounded by the co-workers in whose eyes she felt herself unbearably lowered. I began to investigate this important question of humiliation, which I didn’t fully understand (even though I, too, found it almost intolerable to show my face at the office and there be subjected, as I detected or imagined, to unsympathetic evaluation by certain parties.) It seemed to me that there had to be, in this day and age, a substantiated, widely accepted understanding of such an ancient mental state. I took it upon myself to visit websites dedicated to modern psychological advances and to drop in on discussion sites where, with an efficacy previously unavailable in the history of human endeavor, one might receive the benefit of the wisdom, experience, and learning of a self-created global network or community of those most personally and ideally interested in humiliation, and in this way stand on the shoulders of a giant and, it followed, enjoy an unprecedented panorama of the subject. I cannot say that it turned out as I’d hoped. It would have been hard to uncover a more vicious and inflammatory collection of opiners and inveighers than this group of communitarians, who, perhaps distorted by a bitter private familiarity with humiliation and/or by the barbarism in their natures, applied themselves to the verbal burning down of every attempt at reasoning and constructiveness. Frankly, it was grotesque and frightening to behold. Apparently the torch of knowledge, conserved through the ages by monks and scholars and brought to brilliance by the noblest spirits of modernity, now was in the hands of an irresistible horde of arsonists.)
In late March, I received a call from a woman speaking on behalf of Sandro Batros. She wanted to postpone the get-together until the morrow, Sunday.
“How do you mean, ‘the get-together’?” I said.
“I’m transferring you now,” she said.
I heard Sandro say how much he was looking forward to at last meeting his little brother’s friend. He said, “Listen, just a heads-up, I’m fat. Fat as in really big. Maybe Eddie told you. I just wanted to let you know. No surprises. Cards on the table.”
Next thing, the assistant was telling me the appointment had been rescheduled at 10:00 a.m. at Sandro’s suite at Claridge’s hotel.
I said, “Claridge’s in London?” I heard no reply. I said, “I’m in New York. I’m in the U.S.A.”
“OK,” she said after a long pause, very absorbed by something.
I hung up, caught a plane to London, and took a taxi from Heathrow to Mayfair. I cannot extinguish from memory the terrifying racing red numbers of the meter. At 9:07 a.m., I arrived at Claridge’s. I recall clearly that the taxi came to halt behind a Bentley. I presented myself at the Claridge’s front desk at 9:08. The receptionist told me that Mr. Batros had checked out. She pointed back at the entrance. There he goes, she said, and we watched the hotel Bentley pull away.
Sandro’s assistant didn’t return my calls. Neither did Eddie.
My return flight was not till the evening. What to do? It was a miserable, rainy day, and a walk was out of the question. Moreover this was London, a city I’d never taken to, maybe because to visit the place even for a short time is to be turned upside down like a piggy bank and shaken until one is emptied of one’s last little coin. I got the Tube back to Heathrow.
Looking up from my newspaper in the departure lounge, I saw two French-speaking little girls sneaking around histrionically as they tried to attach a paper fish to their father’s jacket. The mother was in on the prank and the father was, too, although he was pretending not to notice. Something old-fashioned about the scene made me check the date on my newspaper. It was April 1, 2007.
So long as I have adequate legroom, I like flying long haul. The trip back to New York was spent contentedly enough: watching Bourne movies, which for some reason I never tire of; drinking little bottles of red wine from Argentina; and mentally composing a series of phantasmal e-mails to Eddie Batros. Successively deploying modes of outrage, good humor, coldness, ruefulness, and businesslike brevity, I let him know again and again about the London debacle and its inevitable consequence, namely, that I was withdrawing myself from consideration for the Dubai opening.
From THE DOG. Used with permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Joseph O’Neill.