"Funeral for a Dog" by Thomas Pletzinger [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger, translated by Ross Benjamin
Publisher: W.W. Norton
Why This Book Should Win: Two reasons: 1) during Thomas’s reading tour, three consecutive events were disrupted by a streaker, a woman passing out and smashing a glass table, and a massive pillow fight amid a Biblical thunderstorm; 2) the phone number.
The following piece is written by Erin Edmison who is a partner at Edmison/Harper Literary Scouting and worked on Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, which beat out Eugenides & Co. for the NBCC award in fiction.
Thomas Pletzinger is a romantic. He’s not a Romantic; the language of his 2011 debut novel Funeral for a Dog is more observational than emotional, or maybe it’s observational about emotion, in the way of that midcentury German master, Max Frisch (ripples of Montauk lap at this novel’s edge). Then again, Pletzinger’s book feels totally modern (if not Modern). The characters’ central drama has to do with The Way Some of Us Live Now: over-educated, burdened by choice, willing to throw out the cultural roadmaps, but unsure how to draw new ones.
Daniel Mandelkern (his surname translates to “almond seed,” and is also the German word for the amygdala, the part of the brain most responsible for processing memory and emotion) is at a crossroads. He’s left his doctorate in the German-sounding field of ethnography (we would call him a cultural anthropologist) to write feature pieces for the Arts & Culture section of the Hamburg newspaper. His wife Elisabeth is his editor at the paper, and it’s starting to chafe: “(since I started working for Elisabeth’s department, our marriage has become more professional).” When she sends him on what he considers to be a ridiculous assignment— fly down to Italy’s Lake Lugano to interview Dirk Svensson, a mega-bestselling but reclusive children’s book author, and fly back that night—Daniel knows exactly what she’s punishing him for. She wants a child; Daniel’s resistant.
The specter of that phantom trio (Daniel, Elisabeth, Baby Mandelkern) is only one of a series of threesomes—both romantic and situational— that occur throughout the book, down to Svensson’s three-legged dog. The three-part arithmetic of one person choosing between two options leads to several of the book’s dilemmas, and they’re ones many of us face: I could live here, or there; I could love this woman, or that one; I could have this kind of life, or one completely different. All is not possible; one must choose. When Mandelkern arrives on the shores of Lake Lugano, he’s surprised to find he’s not the only person coming for a visit: a fetching Finnish doctor named Tuuli and her young son also clamber into the boat when Svensson comes to pick them up. And contrary to the dossier given to him by his wife before the trip, Svensson doesn’t live alone, but with a curly-haired American photographer named Kiki. But it’s when Mandelkern unlocks a trunk in the bedroom to discover reams of unpublished stories that he realizes who is really the guest in this house on the Italian lake, more present because of his absence: the departed Felix, who seems to have been the glue holding this motley crew together. What was meant to be a reporting trip of a few hours stretches to days as Mandelkern pieces together the relationship between Svensson, Tuuli, and Felix, a series of tales that starts in Brazil, continues in New York, and finishes in Italy.
But they don’t really finish in Italy, do they? Mandelkern must go home; Tulli, too. And despite having an ending that wraps around to the beginning, Funeral for a Dog, left me feeling unfinished, too, in the best of ways. But aren’t we all? We get fuller and fuller of stories and memories in this life, but we’re never finished, until we are.
Click here for an interview with Pletzinger and Ross Benjamin conducted by Diana Thow.
And watch the reading interrupted by the pillow fight by clicking below: