Philip Womack

Escaping the Inferno

Meg Rosoff’s unhappy hero, adrift in the city, eventually finds a purpose — and possibly a partner— in life thanks mainly to his two dogs

Escaping the Inferno
Text settings

Jonathan Unleashed

Meg Rosoff

Bloomsbury, pp. 288, £

I read this, Meg Rosoff’s first novel for adults (though her previous fiction, aimed at teenagers, is widely enjoyed by older readers), curled up with my beautiful lurcher, Una, twitching her ears beside me. Appropriately so, as the novel concerns the relationship between a young man and two dogs, super-intelligent collie Dante and devoted spaniel Sissy. All dog-owners will recognise how Rosoff describes their interactions: Jonathan worries about ‘the practical and spiritual difficulties of caring for other sentient beings’, and spends hours imagining ‘the Byzantine quality’ of their inner lives (when I read that sentence, I exchanged glances with Una; she lifted her tail as if to say, You didn’t know?)

Jonathan is gingerly approaching the borders of adult life. His job is dissatisfying; he writes advertising copy for Broadway Depot, a stationery supplier: ‘Plastic folders 30 per cent off, one day only!’ Any attempt at creativity is firmly squashed. His girlfriend Julie’s ‘belief system consisted of medium heels, a decent hair cut and solid retirement funds’. His collie, Dante, on the other hand, is so clever he ‘should really be running a medium-sized investment bank’ (as much a comment on banks as it is on collies) and has a major talent for herding things, including people.

Jonathan is, like all young people in big cities, totally lost, seeking things he doesn’t want, completely unaware of what it is that he does, feeling a terrible void in his heart whenever he logs on. He is very much in need of herding. Imaginative, borderline-crazy, he spends his time writing a cartoon version of the Inferno, with his dog Dante as Virgil. The picture of modern life is both acute and alarming.

Rosoff has a gift for the well-phrased, dry inversion — ‘Jonathan wished he had a girlfriend who was more dog friendly or dogs that were more girlfriend friendly’ — and takes great pleasure in swiping at business speak: ‘I need to wrongside yesterday’s headlines. Reverse the buy-sell pendulum. Avoid disasterfication.’

The main plot is a carefully controlled farce. Jonathan and Julie’s wedding is due to be live-streamed on a website, with the event styled by the magazine that Julie works for, and the guests chosen purely for their photogenic qualities. Jonathan’s subsequent nervous breakdown entails him seeing everyone as a cartoon character: ‘Like it or not, he was engaged to Felix the Cat.’ The flimsiness of everything, 2D and exaggerated, is evident.

The dogs have other plans for Jonathan: they, like Virgil and Dante, seem to be guiding him through New York’s layers of hell (whether they are agents or not is ambiguous) .The love story that follows is both involving and moving, and proves that solidity can be found even in the turmoil of the 21st century. It isn’t quite as simple, though, and Rosoff keeps us guessing.

This is a witty, sardonic, thoroughly enjoyable Bildungsroman; and the next time Una wakes me up unaccountably at 5 a.m., I’ll know she doesn’t just want to go out: she’s trying to nudge me into changing my life.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £14.99 Tel: 08430 600033