Blogging the Caine: David Medalie’s “The Mistress’s Dog”

This is the final week of our Caine Prize blogathon! The winner will be announced on July 11th, and there will be several related events next week, if you happen to be in London. This week’s story is David Medalie’s “The Mistress’s Dog” (click here for the .pdf) and it’s excellent, much recommended. Other people writing about this week’s story are (to be updated as they come in): Method to the Madness and The Mumpsimus

Nola’s intimacy with “the mistress’s dog” is something the story can only show us, not explain. It’s a thing too subtle for words, perhaps, or too intricately overdetermined: trying to explain it would be like lifting a jellyfish out of the sea and watching its delicate body collapse without the support of its environment. And maybe just a little like the way that Hydromedusa to the left needs the water to hold its body together, the trio of characters in David Medalie’s story — a trio whose structural identities are abstracted into the curious presence of the dog in her lap — need something like youth and wealth to keep floating, or perhaps they all just need each other. The story, then, is about what happens when all that collapses, when the youth and wealth that brought them together is gone.

In other words, what strikes me is, forst, the peculiar stability of the 12 year affair and the 40 year marriage at the story’s center, contrasted with how pointlessly fragile it all becomes once (in the story’s present) the mistress and the husband are dead, and the dog is dying. What is this dog doing in Nola’s house? What is she doing with her dead husband’s dead mistress’s dying dog? Without their presence, its presence makes no sense: she prefers cats. And yet its presence as a dying thing, a figure of the inevitability of age — “These things happen when you’re old…We all get old” — is just as uncanny and strange. What is dying? What has gone? When it was in the water, the thing seemed natural, alive; out of water, not.

This is how I make sense of the decision to take the dog, for example, and to keep it. When her husband’s mistress has moved to a retirement home that will not allow pets, Nola knows she could refuse to let her husband bring the dog into her home. But with the mistress gone, with the affair long ended, what’s the point in revenge? With the triangle broken, where’s the grievance? There’s nothing left to be angry about. At the same time, when the husband is dead, when the mistress is dead, the dog becomes the last memory of that triangle, a sort of figure for the memory of the structure that is the only trace of identity we have for the protagonist herself. And so she keeps it.

After all — and this, I think is the most important thing about the story — do we know a single fact about Nola that isn’t her husband, her husband’s mistress, or her husband’s mistress’s dog? We almost don’t. There is only one, and it’s her preference for cats, the one preference she still has not indulged, and which the presence of the dog figures as absence. Her entire identity as a character and as a person is given to us as her preference for cats, and just as her entire identity has been subsumed in the denial of personhood that her link with her husband and his mistress have produced, so too has that one symbolic element of personal assertion — I prefer cats — been buried underneath the presence of the dog, itself a figure for that triangle.

Except, now, they’re dead and it’s dying. Maybe she’ll get a cat once the dog is dead, and all that that would signify. But not until then, clearly: even after all those other things have been washed away by time, she clings to the dog, curiously passive as she holds on to the remnant of the un-made choice it represents. Underneath all her scorn for the mistress — her quiet contempt for the woman who thought she could make something of herself, emancipate herself, buy herself into full autonomous freedom — lurks the fact that Nola never did and never tried. It was Nola who never dared to enter “the unfettered darkness of night,” or to be spirited and strong. She stayed chained.

Until now, when here she is, unchained by time and with nothing left of the triangle that made her who she was. Or, rather, nothing but her mistress’s fast fading dog. And when it dies, she’ll be free. Or will she collapse?