Of course there was that first tacit enthusiasm for taking on new and exotic sexual partners from among the changing animals, for trying new positions impossible before, and for dropping off old partners into the zoos or woods or oceans, and saying nothing about it to anyone…going on as though all this were the most natural thing in the world. It was almost as though the men had found a world to their liking, in which they had even more control than before and in which relationships and responsibilities were less confining.The premise of Carmen Dog is a simple one: one day, women begin to turn into animals, and female animals to turn into women. Our story focuses on Pooch, a golden setter who becomes a young woman. Because her mistress is turning into a turtle, she begins to look after the family’s youngest child. After some time she leaves home with the baby, and she ends up in a lab, part of a group of subjects a doctor is experimenting on with the assistance of Rosemary, his half-transformed wife.
Meanwhile, this change is of course affecting society at large, and there are those who say that perhaps it’s not such a bad thing. But to make sure things remain orderly, an Academy of Mothers is established, so that the reproductive process may continue to be controlled. But animal or human, the females of several species don't particularly like the idea.
If this plot sounds a bit chaotic, well, it is — but in the best possible way. Carmen Dog is a very funny, sharp and insightful book. Let me tell you how I found out about it: Small Beer Press was having a sale, and this book was (still is!) only $1. Though I hadn’t heard of it before, I had been meaning to read Carol Emshwiller, and besides the blurb by Ursula K. Le Guin and the sentence “Carmen Dog is the funny feminist classic that inspired writers Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler to create the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award” completely sold me.
Carol Emshwiller is very funny – funny in a straight-faced, ironic way that reminded me a little of Margaret Atwood. And being funny, of course, doesn’t mean that this isn’t a serious book with very frightening implications. The fact that it’s a humorous fantasy might make it possible for us to distance ourselves from what’s happening in a way that a more realistic story about cruelty, discrimination, powerlessness and subjugation wouldn’t allow. But then again, it also allows Carol Emshwiller to take it to places where a realistic story wouldn’t go—and this is why I love fantasy. The harshness is there all the same, and there are things to be learned from this distance. If you look beyond the surface, it's really as disturbing as The Handmaid's Tale.
Pooch was such an interesting character. She’s fond of singing opera, particularly Carmen, and that’s where the book’s title comes from. She’s also a young woman who used to be a dog, and this transformation didn’t alter who she is completely. At one point, she’s described as follows:
She is, and will remain, basically, as stated in the official publication of the American Kennel Club: “the mild, sweet disposition characteristic of this breed, along with the beauty, intelligence, and aristocratic appearance makes it in the field and in the home, has endeared it both to sportsmen as well as lovers of a beautiful, active, and rugged outdoor (companion).” But since she is human by now she’ll he harder to live with, though there will be more rewards for doing so.It is of course no coincidence that this canine nature matches traditional definitions of femininity. As you can imagine, a dog of this disposition turned into an attractive young woman will appeal to certain kinds of people. Don’t worry—nothing too terrible happens to her, and Pooch does learn to look after herself. But again, the reader is never allowed to forget all the implications, all the threats lurking in the background.
Carmen Dog is a story about gender, and also about what it means to be human. It's about how society perceives animals, about the treatment it has in store for those that are powerless and defined as “beasts”, or any other word that is taken by some to mean “sub-human”—including “female”. What’s at the bottom of this story are the dangers of defining anything — gender roles, humanity, you name it — in rigid and confining ways.
It’s such a shame that this novella isn't more well-known. It’s certainly a story that will stay with me.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I'll be glad to add your link here.)