|Brett Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs
by Lina Wolff
trans by Frank Perry
|And Other Stories, 2015
Reviewed by Maeve Murray
Swedish author Lina Wolff’s debut novel is a wonderfully complex and sometimes confusing journey. The plot meanders, the prose balances grittiness with the surreal, and our ideas about gender and love are challenged. While the novel is not linear and the narrative can be difficult to follow, the situations and concepts Wolff puts before us are thought-provoking, yet easy to digest. This balancing act between soft and hard, challenge and ease, and supposed versus real morality is central to the novel’s success.
Araceli Villalobos is a young girl at the beginning of the novel, living with her mother in a small Spanish town. Her life leaves much to be desired, which leads her to compulsively watching Alba Cambo, the writer downstairs. Araceli wonders about Alba’s life, fantasizes about it. Wolff’s prose and near-constant switching of point of view makes it unclear how much Araceli actually knows about Alba. The narrative tends to deviate from Araceli’s story in pivotal moments, such as when Alba’s maid comes to live with them. In this instance, we’re immediately thrown into Blosom’s backstory. If Araceli knows this, comes to know this, or if it is only known to the readers, is hard to discern. The narrative voice clings to Araceli when she is on the page, yet seems to know things she couldn’t know. Wolff’s choice to leave knowledge ambiguous gives the novel its surreal feel, yet manages not to distract from later progressions.
Wolff tackles more than unconventional narration. Her attention fixates on women breaking gender norms, and she challenges her readers to think about the concept of “real” love. Despite having opportunities later in her life, Araceli chooses to pursue sex work. Wolff also takes us inside the complex relationship of her friend, Muriel. Muriel’s ideas about love are materialistic; they include ideas about gifts, wealth, and favors. The transaction of money for sex seems to have seeped into her overall understanding of men and women. We learn that Muriel left her boyfriend, a man we’re to believe actually loved her, for an older, richer man named Paco Parra. Wolff tests us with this relationship. Is it love? Parra captures Muriel’s former boyfriend and offers her the chance to murder him, an act which he sees as a gift to Muriel, a gift of love. Like Muriel, readers are likely disgusted by this. But through Araceli, we’re left to wonder what makes a person so perverse? What makes their version of love so different? Are we correct to assume that people like Parra are beyond any explanation or redemption? Araceli says of him as she and Muriel retreat back to Barcelona, “His good intentions frightened me,” because of the kindness he had shown her. It’s clear that we’re not supposed to forget him, or this trial on our moral conscience.
Wolff’s novel weaves together many stories, each one with a distinct narrator and series of unexpected events. One of the more memorable stories is actually a short story written by Alba Cambo. It features a little girl named Lucifer, Lucy for short. Lucy’s mother named her so because she hated her, hated the thought of giving birth to her, to raising her. This defies conventional thoughts about how mothers should behave, but the story doesn’t just tackle that issue. As Lucy grows up, she forms an innocent attachment to a young priest. Poisoned by ideas that this priest must be molesting Lucy, the town rises up and prosecutes him. To them, a simple love between a man and a child cannot exist. It must lead to perverse actions. But in this story, we see it does not. In the overall novel, Alba is known for writing violent short stories, and so Araceli ponders if that could be the only reason the young priest meets a horrible end. But as readers, we’re able to look beyond Alba’s intentions, and realize that Wolff is making difficult statements about what constitutes love.
The novel’s preference for strong female characters, like Araceli, Muriel, Blosom, and Alba, only exemplifies the naming of the brothel dogs – with famous, male authors. It is clear from the rest of the novel that these dogs are metaphorical, and that perhaps what Wolff is really saying is that the topics she’s so diligently covered in her novel were essentially ignored by male writers, the “dogs” whom she feeds rotten meat when woman are mistreated. Wolff’s debut novel is well-worth the zig-zagging trip it takes through narrative, to end at a place where readers are left with an appreciation for Wolff’s careful craft and protest of conventional norms.