Love as a terminal condition
Shastri Ramachandaran

Three Dog Night.
by Peter Goldsworthy. Penguin.
Pages 341. Rs 350

Three Dog NightLove is a compulsive obsession. To wreck such love is also a compulsive obsession. The way it turns out between the narrator Martin Blackman, his wife Lucy Piper and his once-close-now-hostile buddy Felix is richly but wrenchingly rendered by Peter Goldsworthy in his Three Dog Night.

Goldsworthy is one of Australia’s finest novelists and critics Down Under have dubbed the book as "Peter’s love letter to Adelaide". It revels in the attractions of Adelaide, as rediscovered by Martin in the company of his trophy wife picked up in London, where he was for 10 years before he returned home. The book is more about a journey into the Australian desert, a terminal journey – end of life for one, end of love for another and end of illusions for all.

‘Three dog night’ is an idiomatic expression that refers to the number of dogs – four or five – that are required to keep warm in the Australian desert. In this novel, it represents the perverse menage a trois as it develops between Martin, Lucy and Felix.

Martin is rebuffed, thwarted and humiliated when he reaches out to resume his friendship with Felix, who is no more the brilliant surgeon Martin looked up to. Felix is a physical and emotional wreck, dying of cancer but dying even more to get a grab of Lucy before he dies. The book is seething with metaphors and loaded with biblical symbolism. Lucy, of course, is Eve and Martin her Adam. Felix is the Serpent. He ‘borrows’ Lucy from Martin and that triggers the terminal condition where love, marriage, faith, happiness and friendship are all ebbing away much like life is draining out of Felix.

At a banal level, the moral is simple: If you have a trophy, even if it’s a wife, and you want to keep it, well, just keep it. Don’t flaunt it, as it may tempt another to reach out for a piece of the action.

However, Goldsworthy’s work can never be banal. Even the humour is a hiss of steam from a pressure cooker throbbing with multiple tensions of humans wrestling with conflicting feelings and urges. Three Dog Night is both a physical and philosophical journey of explorations into the big questions of life – love, sex, death, hatred, limits of scientific rationalism, other rationalisms in other cosmologies. There are ways of living, even if psychiatry and neurochemistry don’t really help you find them to fit your life. No less is the urge to find a way, and a place, for dying. Those who plumb minds, like psychiatrists, have no clue to the answers to the big questions any more than those who probe bodies have the knowledge to set it right. Martin’s own condition - of a professional dedicated to unravelling the impulses underlying human behaviour with his research of the World Wide Id but with no understanding of his own emotions – exemplifies the human dilemma and the hiatus between lived truths and clinical convictions.