Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs begins with the narrator, Araceli Villalobos, being told a story by Valentino Coraggioso about Alba Cambó. Valentino was out with Alba, walking, trying second-hand clothes on, dining at a restaurant, discussing marriage.
That was the way we were going to live. Full on, flat out and no teasing the brakes. Wholeheartedly. Otherwise why bother? We would live life even if it killed us. That was what we would do and that was the moment I realised it. Alba Cambó and I would live life, even if it killed us.
At the end of the day, Alba takes a ‘phone call and reveals to Valentino that she has an inoperable tumour.
Alba Cambó’s a writer. On the day she moves into the flat below Araceli and her mother they read her short story, published in Semejanzas, about a lonely, socially phobic man. The climax of the story comes when his daughter organises a surprise birthday party for him. He enters his apartment unaware that anyone else is there and lets out a fart that’s been building all day:
The sound that came out of the man was lengthy and sustained. It echoed between the walls and was drawn out into a kind of lamentation; it was then transformed into the cry that issues from the gullet of a bird one evening on some isolated mountain lake, and was finally followed by a sigh of relief. The daughter stood there paralysed in the darkness. The whole thing fell apart.
Apart from possibly being the best description of a fart in literature (are there others?) these two short pieces introduce the key theme of the novel – storytelling, translation and particularly, how each of us translates the same person differently depending on our experiences of them. We do meet Alba but she’s shown to us by Araceli who, we discover in the second section of the book, is studying to be a translator. In that second section, Araceli gives an account of the dinner she and Alba attend at the apartment one of her teachers. It’s one of the few moments when Araceli directly discusses Alba. Also in that section, one of Alba’s stories is included in full, unlike at the beginning of the novel when it’s related to us by Araceli. However, even the inclusion of Alba’s story is a decision made by Araceli and, ultimately, Lina Wolff writing as Alba Cambó. Everything we learn is filtered through someone else’s viewpoint.
The book also includes the stories of those around Alba. In the first section, Alba’s housekeeper, Blosom, tells Araceli and her mother her story. In the final section, it’s Rodrigo Auscias and how he became mixed up in a business arrangement and more with one of Alba’s former lovers. The title of the novel (and isn’t it a great title?) belongs to his story when he procures a dog for his wife from a brothel:
We’ve got a kennel and all the dogs in it are named after famous male writers, she [the sex worker he’d spent the night with] had said. Whenever some guy pays us a visit and is nasty to us, we give the dogs rotten meat.
Their names are a result of ‘an intellectual feminist from the city…[who] said she wanted to help us, though the truth is she looked down on us’. When she discovered the dogs were unnamed, in a passive aggressive move, she named them Dante, Chaucer and Harold Bloom. Bret Easton Ellis is ‘named after a book someone found one morning on the bedside table’. I can’t help laughing at the nod – and a middle finger? – to American Psycho there.
Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is a clever, thoughtful novel whilst also being a really interesting, well-told, engaging story (or set of intertwined stories). There’s a lot of noise at the moment about the American novel The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North (which I’ll review in a couple of weeks). In that, the protagonist – a young, female, indie film director – is revealed through the stories of those who knew her best. Wolff does something similar but subtler with a slightly older, female writer. If you prefer your literature European filtered through Latin America with an occasional kick of dark humour, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is the one for you.
Thanks to And Other Stories for the review copy.