As we have already seen, Lake Ontario constitutes an important motif throughout the text. The lake links together the story's different threads, symbolizes the dogs' shared heritage, and reminds us of the dogs themselves because of their shared nature as finite, natural elements within a larger, man-made cityscape. As if to solidify the importance of the lake and its beaches to the dogs in the novel, Alexis primarily depicts the lake through its various smells—that is, the sensory information that dogs are most attuned to notice. When the lake is first mentioned in the novel, for example, it is not noticed for its look or feel, but rather for its smells: among them, "sour, vegetal, fishy," and the smells of "cooked pork, tomatoes, grease from cow's meat, corn, bread, sweetness and milk" (19). Later, when Prince is crated off to be put down, he too smells the lake, and it comes to him "like a long-forgotten dream" (167). The lake is the natural foil to the dogs, and it is presented to us through their eyes (or, more appropriately, their noses).
Gardens of Death
When Benjy recalls what happened to the pack, he spends a lot of time reflecting on so-called "gardens of death," whose imagery is recalled to us primarily in terms of sight and smell (76-77). We are told about the tell-tale scent of "rust and rubbing alcohol" that evokes the poisons set down in such gardens to ward off animals. So too we are told in graphic detail about the kinds of foods that are typically present in such a garden, along with the corpses of animals who dare to try them—"cow's meat, pieces of cooked chicken or even sugary breads" (76-77). The gardens of death is recalled here in shattered imagistic fragments to convey an authentic sense of the impression they left on Benjy in the past, as well as to show us how Benjy formulates his ultimate plan to kill the others in his pack when he smells the signature scent coming from a house near the park. Much like with Lake Ontario throughout the book, note here how important olfactory information is to the landscape of the gardens—here, too, the perception of the dog characters is centered.
The way that Alexis chooses to describe Olympus is also remarkable—not for how he chooses to deploy imagery, but rather for how he withholds it:
Olympus, the city, lies atop Olympus, the mountain. Much more than that cannot be said because it is, as any city is, a correlative of the minds that made it. Travel through Olympus would be a revelation of the imagination that conceived the city. That imagination being divine, no human language can express it. In English—if one must speak English—Olympus is best encompassed by the words nothing and nowhere, though it is something and somewhere, and he whose mind Olympus best mirrors, Zeus, father of the gods, was unhappy with his sons. (91)
Much as Alexis centers smell imagery in other places to center the phenomenological experience of the dogs who drive the narrative, so too does he avoid imagery entirely here because there is no language which could adequately convey the truth of Olympus to a human being or other mortal. Even so, by tracing the city's contours as mappable to the consciousness of Zeus, father of the gods, we gain a sense of how truly foreign such a city would be to our comprehension. Alexis' description of Olympus, then, might be considered a type of anti-imagery or imagery of omission, which conveys a notion or picture of something by not describing it at all.
Once Hermes gifts Majnoun divine understanding in Chapter 4, there is a moment when Majnoun and Nira are sitting together and watching willow trees. The narrator, giving us insight into Nira's inner thoughts, tells us that, once Majnoun's English becomes familiar to Nira, the fact that they are different species ceases to be significant for Nira. As evidence, the narrator then tells us about the duo's shared fascination with the willow trees:
(Willows were for both of them a source of fascination. Though he knew better, Majnoun had always thought the trees were a subtle kind of animal, deceptive and imperious. To the very end, part of him still believed it. He could not contemplate the swaying branches without wishing to bite them. Minus the desire to bite, Nira felt something similar. For her the trees were like mammoths in leaf: ancient, slow, the last of something imperial, though of course they were not. They were only trees.) (127)
By setting this aside entirely within parenthesis, Alexis first creates visual imagery on the page that leaves us with the impression of such thoughts being unconsciously identical, not spoken be either party but thought up with awareness of the other's internal state. Moreover, in his literal description of how each party views the willow—in Majnoun's case, through movement, and in Nira's case, through visual imagery—Alexis highlights the different sensory capacities and priorities of each creature, while still showing us how they reach a similar conclusion in the emotion of fascination.
Fifteen Dogs Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Fifteen Dogs is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.