People have been recommending this book to me ever since it was published: but I never do as I'm told. I probably enjoyed it more now than I would have ten years ago.
Or perhaps I'm just drunk on Carroll's prose. His writing is, literally, inspirational: I marvel at the acuteness of his focus, and find myself verbalising my own experiences and observations much more (and more intelligently) than I usually would do.
Harry Radcliffe is a brilliant architect who's just come through a bout of madness, out of which he was guided by the shamanic Venasque. Venasque passed out of Harry's life before the beginning of the novel, but he's as present as Harry's two girlfriends (Claire and Fanny), or Harry's new friend Morton Palm, a carpenter who specialises in doors and ladders.
Harry is approached by the fabulously wealthy Sultan of Saru to design a billion-dollar dog museum. Gradually he allows himself to be persuaded: the Sultan is a very ... unusual ruler. His son Hassan (engaged in an affair with Fanny) is a different kind of man altogether. And, it turns out, the Dog Museum is not what it seems, either.
As the novel progresses, Harry becomes more in touch with the world around him; sees things he can scarcely believe (magic and otherwise) and learns, in a sense, how to be alive again. He comes to terms with some unpleasant truths about himself, and acquires a number of interesting new skills. And he begins to make the right choices.
There's a dream-logic to even the most unnatural scenes (man eats car; child channels shaman; one individual acquires instant telepathic knowledge of what it's like to be that passer-by), and though there is certainly magic it's not the showy hand-waving stuff. There are no magic spells. (Come to think of it, there's one.) The supernatural's there all along, whether or not Harry is aware of it, but it sits quietly in peculiar forms and doesn't draw attention to itself.
But oh, the prose! Of a man being stripped back to essentials by adversity: "he poisoned down into a cowardly, selfish SOB". Of an optimist: "she believed in life and considered it her friend". Of being in the company of someone who's terminally ill: "Years later in a biology class, I watched a snake devour a live mouse bit by wriggling bit. That is what it was like to be with [him] that single day, knowing that something was killing him even as we stood there looking at his red onions."
Many people tell their stories, like parables, to Harry. It seems to me, looking back, that each one of those stories illuminates Harry's own story from another angle: but when I read the novel this passed me by, so subtly is it achieved. I'm already looking forward to rereading Outside the Dog Museum: already suspecting that the subtleties of its construction and technique will pass me by again.