Living with Rosie, writes Myles, “I was companioned, seen.” The gift of being seen is key. When, in a later chapter, Myles writes that her beloved father, who died as a result of a horrific alcohol-related accident when Myles was 11, “saw me,” she means it in the same way that Rosie did. In fact, for Myles, Rosie is her dead father, who, after 30 years, “decided to come back again as Rosie because I believe he simply liked me very much.” But Myles also imagines that Rosie has been other dogs, and other people besides her father, including, wildly enough, the third-century Persian prophet Mani, founder of Manichaeism.
A mind as searching and honest as Myles’s would not be content to explore the commonplace joys and rewards of dog ownership without also looking at the dark side. “Part discomfort & humiliation and part devotion” is how she describes the relationship. Could it be that, besides being her pet’s nurturer and protector, she was also her abuser? Rosie herself complains of having been cruelly spayed and claims that Myles (or rather, Jethro, as she calls her) “had me raped.” (Pace Rosie, the chapter telling how Myles arranged to have her mated with another pit bull in her living room one rainy summer night is one of the high points of the book.)
Myles possesses, in abundance, two qualities of the highest value for a writer, irreverence and relentless curiosity, and here both are on full display. As a prose writer she is naturally, even obsessively, digressive, and the book’s loose, nonlinear form allows her to riff or ruminate on what can seem at times like a maniacal range of subjects, among them alcoholism, feminism, queerness, libraries, the transmigration of souls, the George W. Bush administration, the literal and metaphorical nature of varieties of foam, writers and writing, the art of tapestry, plaid cloth, and the uniforms of U.S. postal workers (Myles’s father worked as a mailman).
Given how deeply concerned it is with loss, “Afterglow” is inescapably a sad book, but, because it is a love story, and because, like any serious book about death, it is full of life, it has a celebratory feel to it. “It seems you should obviously always be pleasing somebody with your writing but who,” writes Myles. “That in part is the problem of the writer.” The writing here, by turns playful, heartfelt, wise, compassionate, fantastical and audaciously confessional, should please many.
My reluctant leave-taking of Myles and Rosie was softened by “Fetch,” another memoir about a woman in a major relationship with a female dog. Nicole J. Georges was 16 when she acquired from a shelter a pup intended as a Christmas gift to her boyfriend. Short-legged, long-bodied, with a wrinkled face and ears that invite comparison with the flying nun and Dumbo, she appears to be part shar-pei and part dachshund or corgi. When her boyfriend’s parents renege on their agreement to let him adopt her, Georges decides to keep the dog herself. (“Beija was my version of a love child. She was the baby I had in high school, and I saw no option but to stay the course.”) Lucky dog. Given Beija’s behavioral problems, which include peeing indoors, incessant barking and attacking small children, it’s doubtful she would have been permitted to live out the full measure of her days or found a better home than the one Georges struggles over the next 15 years to provide for her.
The dream of a good home is central to this charming and tender graphic memoir. Raised in a chaotic household, the late child of a neglectful mother, Georges recalls that she found comfort only in the company of her pets. But she also confesses to taking out on them her childhood rage and frustrations, which in turn gave rise to feelings of being “unworthy and feral” that would haunt her all her life.
As a young adult Georges settles in Portland, Oregon, where her home becomes a kind of artists’ commune-cum-flophouse, throbbing with punk energy and alternative creativity, but hardly ideal for a dog of nervous temperament. Beija, soon notorious for being “bad” and “crazy,” is forced to wear a neckerchief saying Don’t Pet Me. But is she wholly to blame? What about strangers who expect her to behave like a stuffed animal whenever they feel entitled to touch her or otherwise invade her personal space? When Georges creates a flier ardently pleading Beija’s case for a right to autonomy and posts copies of it around the neighborhood, she is gratified to discover that at least some people — namely, women — get it: “It’s kind of like feminism,” says one, “but for dogs.”
And, for all the disruption she causes, it’s Beija who helps Georges find her path as an artist. “Through zines I found diary comics, and something clicked. You didn’t need superheroes or gags. A person could draw her own life.” And, in Georges’s life, funny-looking, crisis-prone Beija, “constant source of drama and joy,” is an irresistible sidekick. Georges begins self-publishing comics based on their days together.
It’s in her zine also that Georges comes out as a lesbian, acknowledging her “immense excitement and deep sense of home around gay ladies.” But finding a true, lasting home with another person turns out to be no easy matter, and after one especially brutal breakup Georges succumbs to suicidal despair. At this darkest hour, reflecting on their long relationship, she sees that her incorrigible but ever-faithful dog, who “loved me even when I lapsed in loving myself,” has been as much a home for her as she has been for Beija. “Neither of us had ever been chosen,” she writes, “but we chose each other.”
By never giving up on her bad dog, Georges learns never to give up on herself.
Georges’s career has included doing pet portraits as well as comics, and the beguiling black-and-white drawings that illustrate “Fetch” attest to her assertion of finding “real satisfaction by imbuing animal images with emotions.”
Muse, lodestar, teacher, therapist, god. No wonder these writers wished to pay tribute to their dogs. Is it possible, though, that each gives her dog a little too much credit for her own accomplishments? I think so. And would that all human weaknesses were so endearing. “Each writer is required to tell a dog’s story,” Rosie says. Here, twice, the thing is done well.