I started the book with the question “What the hell is this?” and finished it with the question “What the hell have I just read?” To describe Eric Mader’s engrossing, fearless novel as extremely unusual doesn’t come close. A Taipei Mutt is a difficult book to make sense of, to describe and review, and despite being very readable, the actual reading came with its own unique challenge. I had finished the first few chapters and was planning to take it with me on an overseas vacation, and then a voice of caution whispered its warning, “If a customs officer happens to be flicking through it and reads a few choice passages, you could be in trouble. Probably a crime, and, who knows, the book might even be on a blacklist.” I had to admit the potential headline wasn’t ideal – “NZ Teacher Held for Smuggling Dog-Human Porn” – and folks weren’t going to care about the nuances of the dog in question actually being a man in canine form and the historical literary precedents of such farcical satire. I decided to leave the paperback at home. However, I was hooked and wanted to keep reading, so I bought the e-book and smuggled it abroad in my Kindle.

 A Taipei Mutt starts out with a 29-year-old American man, the narrator of the tale, arriving in Taipei to work as an English teacher. The first Taipei impressions will be familiar to many readers: the wearying but exciting shock of chaotic traffic, the stifling heat and humidity, the linguistic confusion. However, not many of us have found ourselves, just hours in the city, flirting with a gorgeous customer in a bank queue, and – jet lag be damned – being whisked off to her apartment.

The woman is a classic East Asian beauty: smooth milk-white skin, long black hair, and sultry dark eyes. Unfortunately for him, she is also a witch. As their love-making reaches a crescendo, he finds himself transformed into a dog, a “Scotch terrier mutt” to be exact.

Our mutt manages to escape and begins a precarious existence as a stray dog, scavenging and begging for scraps, and giving us a dog’s-eye view of the city. He can still think and talk like a man though he has an increasingly acute sense of smell. The novel has some terrific passages conveying the heightened perceptions. When he enters Taipei Zoo at night, he feels a sense of terror and menace, as if he had “broken into a prison made of dung and iron.”

 Mingled with the smell of dung and oppression was something else too, an element that, in my canine sensorium, induced much of the terror. There was in the zoo the smell of an almost infinite tedium. The smell of unrelenting fatigue and the sweat of idleness.

While at the zoo, he encounters several talking animals (long-winded talking animals it has to be said), including a fox and a hippo, who spout a mix of complaints and philosophy. This section was for me the weakest of the book, with its non-Taipei specific setting and extended musings taking us out of the city. The fundamentalist hippo’s lengthy retelling of the Noah’s ark story was one of the moments when I thought, “Flummox me, what the hell is this?” Bewilderment might be only mildly irritating for a normal reader, but when you’re planning to review a book it’s much worse. You’re thinking, “Is this just a hippo talking shit or is it some kind of allegory – and if so, is it the most obvious one or something clever that I’ve missed? Am I even sure what ‘allegory’ means?”

We are back on more comprehensible ground after the mutt leaves the zoo and is on a mission to reverse the magic that changed him into a dog. He figures by repeating the circumstances (i.e. fornication with a human woman) he will change back to a man. Giving urgency to this endeavour is his race against the clock as he feels his mind slipping more and more towards the canine.

A book like A Taipei Mutt could easily lose steam when the novelty of the premise fades, but the story has an especially strong second half. It gets better as we read, increasingly compelling and strangely believable, and the ending is superb.

Though the content matter was sometimes a challenge for my prudish sensibilities, Eric Mader can certainly write, earning himself get-out-of-jail cards where weaker writers would flounder. Take, for example, a scene when the mutt is lust-struck on seeing a fifteen-year-old girl with traffic-slowing sex appeal and very little clothing. Canine desire, he says, comparing it to the human variety, “hits like slow lightning … stronger, more complete, more able to unhinge the mind….”

Her scent was devastating. My dog’s nose had latched onto it even as I strode up, and now I was completely awash in it. It poured down around me like electric nectar as she knelt at the bus stop petting my head and back.

Mader is funny, too. I enjoyed the breaks in the narrative where he berates the audience or calls out modern writers he dislikes and their fans. And how about this rant against cats?

 Whatever you want to call them, whatever breed names into which they’re classified, cats are all in all disgusting creatures.… They’re not mammals, I think, but actually a species of lizard with fur. A kind of lizard that tries to pass itself off as a mammal. A lizard parading around in the trappings of a biological class it doesn’t deserve.

 Despite the jokes and satire, there’s no hiding Mader’s intellectual and literary bent. Alas, I’m not up to the task of reviewing his work (and that’s not false modesty – imagine having a cricket writer pen a review of a ice hockey book). It would be nice to properly analyze the novel with reference to the philosophical points raised and the likely literary influences. However, I can recommend Bradley Winterton’s excellent 2003 review of the first edition. Although Winterton also found himself somewhat bemused, at least he could make intelligent comments such as describing the novel as “displaying the influence of Roman satire (Lucian wrote in Greek, but in the age of the Roman Empire).”

Winterton ended his review with, “It’s the sort of book that could overnight easily become a local cult item.” This hasn’t quite happened, but I wonder if it will when the Chinese version comes out later this year.

A Taipei Mutt is available from Amazon.com and various other retailers.