My first experience of Steven Rowley’s writing didn’t go well. I bought his widely acclaimed debut novel, ‘Lily And The Octopus’, described by The Washington Post as ‘”heart-wrenching but ultimately breathtaking” and I set the audiobook aside after an hour because I didn’t want to spend any more time in the company of Ted Flask. I found him to be insecure, nervous, addicted to therapy from mediocre therapists, introspective to the point of narcissism and so highly-strung that he was exhausting to be with.
That said, ‘Lily And The Octopus’ was well written so when I saw that he’d delivered an Audible Original that was only eighty-one minutes long, had a great title and was set in a location I know, I decided to try his writing for a second time.
I liked the story idea. Paul finds himself alone in Venice, while his ex-husband, who should have been on the trip with him, moves out of their New York home. Paul is going through a period of introspection and looking to make a connection. Oddly, Paul fixates on a street dog, envying it its confidence and independence and sets out to learn from it. Along the way, he hooks up for a night with a waiter at a local restaurant and spends time in his rented loft or walking the streets of Venice in search of his totem dog.
Paul is a man whose inner life is so different from my own that, if ‘The Dogs Of Venice’ had been less well-written I’d have been throwing up my hands in incomprehension. Instead, I stuck with it, trying to open myself up to the world as Paul experiences it.
True, I spent a lot of my time rolling my eyes at how insecure and neurotic Paul was. I scoffed at his pseudo-profundities and struggled not to shout ‘Why do you make everything so complicated?’ at him. Paul is lonely. He lacks confidence. He’s been shaken by the failure of his marriage. But does he have to make such a meal of it? I wanted to tell him that an over-explored life is not worth living, that his problems and his solutions were equally imaginary and that his search for guidance from signs and portents was a way of disguising his abdication of personal agency.
Yeah, Paul got under my skin. I was happy to leave him after eighty-one minutes and I doubted that he’d really learned anything about himself along the way although he had constructed a rich fantasy to distract himself with.
All of which I see as a tribute to Steven Rowley’s writing. You don’t spend so much energy disagreeing with a character without believing in that character.