Novel * Jessica Hagedorn * Postmodern Filipinos * 1990
Have you ever done the thing where you reread a book you remember fondly only to find out that it’s actually not that good? I remember reading Dogeaters about ten years ago in grad school. Half the class liked it, the other half did not. I was in the half that liked it. I remember liking it! It’s a quick moving novel about a culture that I’m not at all familiar with, so already that’s a plus. Now here we are ten years later, wait, hold on one second, I need to let this wave of bleak existential dread wash over me while I process the fact that grad school was a decade ago for me, ah god, time is a swamp y’all. Whew. Okay, what was I saying? Right, turns out Dogeaters is a middling novel. It’s fine. I don’t hate it, but I’ve definitely cooled on the book since I first read it. It’s a shame, because the setting is fantastic and these characters have a lot of potential. Sadly, that potential mostly remains just that.
Dogeaters is about the Philippines in the fifties. Well, time shifts around about over the course of the narrative, and the structure is so fragmented it’s hard to accurately pin down when things are happening, but I’m fairly confident the narrative seeps into the seventies, what with the disco references and all. Not unlike a similar novel I read recently, A Brief History of Seven Killings, this novel is about actual historical figures with some liberties taken. Also, as Seven Killings is a novel examining post-colonial Jamaica, Dogeaters is about post-colonial Philippines. If you want to keep the comparison going, both novels feature fragmented narratives from a wide assortment of disparate characters. The only problem with this comparison is that Dogeaters simply isn’t as good. It lacks the focus and depth of other works dealing with the complexities of colonialism and national identity. While I enjoy a quick moving novel, sometimes it’s worth slowing things down a little bit. This is a huge topic and Hagedorn breezes through it so quickly the reader can never really latch onto anything.
There are aspects of the novel that I enjoy, of course. These days if I actively dislike a book I don’t finish it. I see one and two star reviews on Goodreads and it’s like, who has the time to finish bad books? I will finish novels that I have mixed feelings about, though, and so it is with Dogeaters. The first chapter is brimming with promise. There’s a likable narrator, and a nostalgia-tinged look back at a childhood spent in the Philippines. From my perspective, reading books like this is shameless tourism. I know very little about the Philippines and reading is a crash course in a foreign culture. And if ever there was a place that was fundamentally and irrevocably changed by colonialism, it was the dang Philippines. It’s clear from the first few pages that there are a huge mish-mash of ethnicities, cultures, and languages present, all rubbing up against each other. There are massive influences by the Spanish, the Chinese, and the Americans, all of which blend in a dizzying, incomprehensible array of social status and political contrivances. And of course there is the underlying sense of Filipino-ness which is separate from all those things. When Hagedorn is on her game, the writing is fantastic. Unfortunately, this only shows up in fits and spurts.
The main problem here is the unwillingness of the narrative to stay in one place for more than five seconds. As I noted above, I was feeling the vibe the first chapter was laying down. It was an intimate look at an affluent Filipino’s household in the fifties, told from the perspective of an even-keeled young lady and her obnoxious, vain cousin. Then, as soon as I settled into the groove of the story and the writing, zoom, off we go to some other damn thing. Another character, another narrative. After a couple pages of that, zip, now it’s another character and yet another narrative. Sure, there’s some crossover, but it’s never deep enough to suggest much more than a tangible connection. The narrator of the first chapter, and possibly the book itself, even though she’s not the only first-person narrator, disappears for huge stretches of time. Most of these other people are not as fleshed out or as interesting as the first narrator, either. At least the book never spends very much time with any one particular viewpoint.
Look, this kind of storytelling can be made to work. There’s a lot of story to tell here, and a lot of potentially fascinating characters to follow around. The problem is we never spend enough time with any of them to get a real feeling of why we should care. Joey Sands, the orphaned, drug-addicted, part-time DJ/part-time whore, is a good example of this. He’s fairly engaging, he’s got a wit and cunning that’s fun to read. Sometimes he’s a little bitch and he’s clearly ignorant of the larger world, but he still has a valuable perspective to give us a street-level view of Manila. Yet as soon as we settle in to his voice and his story, woosh, off we go to some other fool that has little or nothing to do with anything else. It’s jarring. And yes, perhaps that’s intentional because post-modernism, but in this case the unsettled narrative does more to harm the novel than it does to enhance it. Zipping from viewpoint to viewpoint, possibly back and forth through time, only undermines any engagement the reader might be able to glean from the novel.
All that said, Dogeaters is still a fascinating window into a place and time that I will never experience first-hand. While the dizzying movement of the novel makes it all but impossible to connect with the characters or their stories in any meaningful way, it is an excellent vehicle to offer the reader an opportunity to shamelessly sample the sights and sounds of the Philippines of that time. There are sections of the book which are borderline impressionistic, just raw sensory input. Interspersed throughout are snippets of newspapers and scripts of radio dramas and other narrative-adjacent text which serve to accent the whirlwind of images throughout. And of course it’s not all good. One of the major players is an ascendant dictator, after all, and it’s not too long before repressive violence shows up and makes its threatening presence known. There is some jarring juxtaposition of scenes of torture and rape with scenes of idyllic days spent drinking TruCola and gossiping. Yet because the same flitting, superficial style is used throughout, the darker elements of the novel simply don’t hit as hard as maybe they should. If there’s one constant within Dogeaters, it’s that the whole thing feels like it should be better.