Reviewed by Bridget Meeds
Isle of Dogs
by John Frankel
October 2020, Paperback, 313 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1952600012
In the multi-volume science fiction epic Drift, local novelist Jon Frankel imagines an America hundreds of year hence, in which climate change has swamped New York City, the United States is ruled by a class of genetically-modified seven-feet giants with bioluminescent hair, and young people still fall in love and crave the clean scrub of rebellion against calcified systems of power. No matter how much the world has changed, families are still families with their maddening loves and hatreds.
Three volumes of Drift have been published so far by the Whiskey Tit press: The Man Who Can’t Die (set in 2180), GAHA: Babes of the Abyss (set in 2540), and now Isle of Dogs (set in 2500). Isle of Dogs is a family epic with intrigue worthy of Shakespeare. The family consists of Sargon 3, a genetically-modified Ruler and Senator of New York; his consort, the powerful Ruler Renee; the woman who as a child was brought to the family to bear Sargon and Renee’s clones, Ruth; the child Sargon 4 (his father’s clone); and Phaedra, a human child conceived by Sargon and Ruth.
While the children grow through adolescence and into a doomed love affair as young adults, Sargon 3 gains and then loses political power. Throughout the political upheaval, we follow Sargon 4’s growth as a thinker and leader and Phaedra’s growth as a creative writer and performer.
Isle of Dogs is full of densely plotted, exciting political intrigue and violence. But Frankel is at best when writing about the intimacies of daily life which persevere in this new world–a meal made with food grown at a garden, a woman’s relief at putting a baby to a full breast, a man picking up his child before going to work.
The book falters in only one way—Ruth, the family surrogate, is portrayed as fairly content, passive about her lot. A different writer might have explored more her feelings at being a child slave who is forced to bear children with whom she has no genetic relationship. I would have appreciated Ruth being given more of an interior life, and Sargon 4 and Phaedra being given a chance to understand more of the injustice of the experience of the woman whose womb carried them.
Despite this shortcoming, Isle of Dogs is a powerful novel which, through the sci fi lens, explores important themes of political power, genetic manipulation, and love. It is a novel well worth reading.
About the reviewer: Bridget Meeds has published poetry with Faber and Faber, the American Poetry Review, and many small presses. Among her creative projects, she was a poet-in-residence at the Wilson Laboratory Synchrotron, a project covered by NPR, Science, and the CBC. She is co-founder of Ithaca City of Asylum, a non-profit which hosts dissident writers. With composer Robert Paterson, she wrote lyrics to a song cycle which premiered at Carnegie Hall. With filmmaker Joel Schlemowitz, she collaborated on an experimental film which premiered at MoMA. She has degrees from Lancaster University and Ithaca College.