M.T. Anderson won the National Book Award in 2006 for the first volume of “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation.” He also won, in my head, the award for Best First Line of 2002, with his novel “Feed,” which begins: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” (“Feed,” too, owns the distinction of having been right about social media two years before Facebook even launched.) Anderson’s work is invariably funny and piercingly intelligent and never quite what you expect — any writer whose oeuvre extends from “Symphony for the City of the Dead” to “Burger Wuss” is working all possible sides of a street that has more than the usual number of sides.
His new novel, “Elf Dog & Owl Head,” is a kind of inverted Narnia story: Instead of children stumbling on a portal to a magical world, a dog scampers out of a magical world and into our own. The dog is Elphinore, one of the royal hunting hounds of the People Under the Mountain, a rather chilly, unfeeling band of subterranean elves.
Nicely captured in Junyi Wu’s moody, d’Aulaires-esque illustrations, Elphinore is possessed of more canine joie de vivre than your common elf hound. (A shameless Celtophilic pedant would point out that her white pelt and blood-red ears mark her as one of the Cŵn Annwn, the phantom hunting pack of Welsh mythology.)
When the Royal Hunt of the Queen Under the Mountain chases a wyrm above ground, into the surface world, Elphinore is fascinated: “She wanted to investigate this sparkling woodland that lay on the top side of the mountain, where she saw colors she had never seen before.” Elphinore dawdles and is left behind by the pack.
Fortunately, she is found and befriended by a boy named Clay. He takes her home to his family: Clay is a middle child, between Juniper, his order-obsessed little sister, and DiRossi, his moody teenage older sister. Much as “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was set against the real darkness of World War II, “Elf Dog & Owl Head” is set during the pandemic, which means that Clay and his siblings are stalked by the Four Horsemen of boredom, financial ruin, remote education and being sick of one another. At her wits’ end, DiRossi tearfully flips over a Monopoly board, shouting, “It’s just all of us going around in circles forever in a sports car and a shoe!” In that moment, we are all DiRossi.
Elphinore may be the best thing that’s ever happened to any of them. With the elf dog as guide, the forest around Clay’s house unfolds into a wood between worlds, and it contains wonders. In a village where everybody has owl heads, Clay bonds with a boy named Amos. DiRossi finds a fellow traveler in an ancient and apparently clinically depressed blue giant. But whenever you travel between worlds you raise the dangling questions of how, and whether, to go home. The cruel People Under the Mountain will come looking for their runaway elf hound, and Elphinore and Clay will have to figure out where she truly belongs.
I won’t give away the elegant, delicately balanced conclusion, except to say that one of the quietly subversive facets of this gem of a novel is the way it moves past the easy dyad that frames our world as a mundane wasteland and the other one as a magical paradise. Anderson writes as eloquently about the joys of reality as he does about the Otherworld, and he makes the case, without straining, that mundanity has its own magic. Sometimes it’s enough just to be where you are. For anyone who disagrees, well … I have some bad news for you about the moon.
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