Reviews

On Bret Easton Ellis and Coming-of-Age Within the Exquisite Eccentricities of Europe

A precisely refined blend of unique and hypnotic people, places, and philosophical phrasings make Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs wondrously impactful and artistic.


Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs

Publisher: And Other Stories
Length: 304 pages
Author: Lina Wolff (Translated by Frank Perry)
Price: $15.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-01
Amazon

The chaotic and eccentric quest to understand romance while coming-of-age is one of the most universal experiences there is, which is why countless storytellers have attempted to capture it. From novels like Great Expectations, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Catcher in the Rye to films like 500 Days of Summer, Moonrise Kingdom, and Y Tu Mamá También, popular culture is filled with examples of artists exploring such struggles, circumstances, and truths.

In her debut novel, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, European writer Lina Wolff offers a refreshing and poignant take on the subject matter. While not as expansive or linear as some other Bildungsromans, it nonetheless incorporates many fascinating characters and situations to help its protagonist learn how love, hope, and tragedy make us who we are.

Prior to this work, Wolff (who lives in Spain, where most of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs takes place), published a short story collection called Många människor dör som du (Many People Die Like You) in 2009, and it's received similar praise for its rich narratives and eloquent, immersive writing. As for Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, its delicate language juxtaposes its weighty implications masterfully, offering a fine balance of harshness, absurdity, and relatable depth akin to Fellini's revered 1973 film, Amarcord.

Before delving in further, it's worth noting that the book's title and subsequent official synopsis are a bit misleading. The latter reads as follows:

At a run-down brothel in Caudal, Spain, the prostitutes are collecting stray dogs. Each is named after a famous male writer: Dante, Chaucer, Bret Easton Ellis. When a john is cruel, the dogs are fed rotten meat. To the east, in Barcelona, an unflappable teenage girl is endeavouring to trace the peculiarities of her life back to one woman: Alba Cambó, writer of violent short stories, who left Caudal as a girl and never went back.

While the second half of that description is true to what the novel entails, there is very little attention given to the notion of dogs who are named after famous male writers. Sure, that part is in there, technically, but it's a very brief anecdote that, despite its importance to the memory from which it comes, is nearly inconsequential to the overarching plot. Of course, this isn't really an issue in the grand scheme of things (since the book is wonderful, anyway), but it's worth pointing out, as readers whose curiosity is peaked by the prospect may feel a bit deceived.

Told in the first person, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs finds its central character, Araceli, recounting the enthralling histories and tales of various complex people with whom she interacts along her path of discovery. In fact, Wolff begins the book with one of the novel's most revelatory and prophetic interactions, as Cambó's lover, Valentino, recalls a fateful day with Cambó as he drives Araceli to school. In doing so, he teaches Araceli the first of many lessons she'll receive about how wonderful and scary love is; likewise, Wolff demonstrates her ability to create a fully realized world whose inhabitants possess idiosyncratic traits and whose environments burst with lovely details. Valentino says:

Alba Cambó and I met up at ten ... and went for a spin in the car. They were playing Vivaldi on the radio ... it was a lovely kind of day, the kind of day when the air smells of figs, salt water and sweet exhaust fumes ... we talked about music you could make love to ... for a few hours I was convinced that I was, or at least could be, that happy ... when the call finally came, evening had fallen ... they've got the results of my tests and it looks as though it's malignant. What is? I said. The tumor, she answered ... they don't tell you things like that from the hospital. Not at night ... not when two people are feeling so happy ... I sat there thinking: the smell of chestnuts, a man telling off a child, the bells striking nine. This is how it is. It's nine o'clock and there's nothing to say I have to stop loving her.

Not only does this opening exchange say volumes about how unpredictable and drastic the changes in our lives can be, but the disclosure of Cambó's impending death at the beginning is an exceptional way to build intrigue for, and give more meaning to, everything that comes next. As Alfred Hitchcock famously suggested, suspense isn't born from revealing the payoff without warning at the end of the narrative; it's showing the audience what's at stake from the very start and allowing them to anticipate when and how the payoff will come. This is exactly what Wolff does here.

Although Cambó and Araceli are very interesting, it's the people around them (like Valentino) who are truly multifaceted and engrossing. Take, for instance, Cambó's housekeeper, Blosom. Her impassioned tone and wise words are always captivating, and hers is arguably the most harrowing, visceral, and affective backstory in Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs. Along the same lines, Araceli's teacher, Madame Moreau, is a slightly sadistic and humorless woman whose disenfranchisement and loneliness has robbed her of feeling any passion, tolerance, or joy. Even so, readers can't help but feel sympathetic towards her, as her core desires speak to the human condition. Naturally, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs contains many more absorbing figures, such as the various men who attempt to seduce Araceli and/or her more adventurous friend, Muriel.

Not only are Wolff's characters and situations mesmerizing, but her insights and commentaries are ripe with gorgeous phrasing and vexing realities. For example, in discussing Madame Moreau's persona, Araceli draws a touching connection to moral deterioration:

[She] didn't have the strength to resist the decay that was slowly but surely forming around her person. That sort of decay may have something to do with there being no one who really likes you, and your not playing an essential role in anyone else's life, and that nothing would come to a stop for even the briefest of instants if you suddenly disappeared one day. There is something unsettling about people who suffer from that kind of decline, perhaps because they have to keep inventing and sticking to a raison d'être for every second of their lives ...

Another astute and beautiful observation comes when Araceli describes her first meeting with one of the aforementioned gentleman callers:

My first encounter with Gestinoes Commerciales took place that autumn, in October. When I saw the man I was supposed to meet, I realized immediately I wouldn't be able to make love and I can see, as I write this, how the insight of that moment was [a] fitting reward for the naivety I had brought to the role of a professional—not even that summer with Muriel and Paco Parra in Perellot had managed to rid me of the notion that love ought to be a precondition for physical intercourse.

It's precisely this refined blend of unique and hypnotic people, places, and philosophical phrasings that make Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs so impactful and artistic. Despite a few issues (like some confusing continuity and a prolonged deviation from Araceli's POV near the end), the book is relentlessly riveting, perceptive, and charming. It prioritizes scenery and subtext over action and other superficial spectacles, making it a coming-of-age journey worth taking. Its story may be relatively brief, but its sentiments last a lifetime.

8
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