The book can best be described as difficult reading. And I mean that as a compliment.
Like difficult listening, (think Sonic Youth at their most avant-garde and adventurous or Capt. Beefheart’s high functioning lunacy on Trout Mask Replica) difficult reading demands a lot from its audience.
Nothing is spoon-fed to you here; you’ll have to unlearn the conventional forms and structure of traditional storytelling if you want to navigate your way through the midnight world of The Pet Thief.
And to be clear: I personally am not a fan of artists making difficult work simply for the sake of being artsy or purposely oblique. But Lou Reed’s nearly career-destroying Metal Machine Music this is (thankfully) not.
The juice is well worth the squeeze with this story. But what exactly is that story? And what makes it so good and so difficult?
The reason that The Pet Thief is such a compelling and challenging read is its narrator Oboy.
You see, Oboy is a hybrid cat-person.
Created, like many other human/animal hybrids, for organ harvesting, drug testing, and military applications. And like the rest of these creations, he is a failed experiment. A defective. A walking mistake.
But here’s where Alonso takes what could be a perfectly serviceable science fiction novel about genetically engineered “cat people”
(Just try and read those two words and not instantly hear Bowie belting out, “Putting out fire with gasoline!”)
and turns it on its head:
Our narrator Oboy is unable to speak or think except in mimicry. Which means the entire novel is told from his jangled and patchwork perspective.
“Stones my fingers tootsies climb. Clicky green shutter my hand shuts. Boiled cabbage. Burnt toast. Splintery panter box. Windowsill. Rainwater head comes. Blinky metal eyes clink clink.”
Exactly. But as nonsensical as that sounds at first, eventually, Oboy’s fractured, Burroughsesque cutup method beat poetry will start to make sense to you as a reader.
And that’s when the fun begins.
If you’re looking for a comparable reading experience, one can be found with Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and its population of droogs with their Nadsat language. Or some more recent examples would be Palahniuk’s Pygmy with its broken English narrator or better yet, last year’s mind breaker from David David Katzman called A Greater Monster, which, like The Pet Thief, gleefully blurs the lines between fiction and poetry.
I’d mention Trainspotting by Welsh but I have never been able to penetrate the Scots/Scottish English language of that book.
That’s right, I had an easier time learning to understand a human/cat hybrid’s mimic language than figuring out what the hell Scottish junkies are talking about.
Which is a testament to Alonso’s characterization and storytelling. Even though Oboy isn’t strictly human he is a fully realized and highly sympathetic character.
And I write that as someone who unabashedly hates cats. (Seriously, cat lovers and cat apologists, cats aren’t complicated, they’re just assholes.)
But Oboy and the rest of the hybrid cast, most notably Oboy’s mentor and at times tormentor, the femme fatale of the piece, the cat-person Freda, are all rendered perfectly with the limited lens of Oboy’s imitation speak.
Freda becomes, in many ways, Gatsby to Oboy’s Carraway in that the book is just as much about her as it is Oboy. Freda rescues (or kidnaps) Oboy at the beginning of the novel and proceeds to indoctrinate and enlist him into her vengeance campaign against the world that created them.
Like Frankenstein’s monster and V from V for Vendetta before her, Freda is a classic literary character, the damaged creation seeking revenge against her creator.
And much like the stories those other characters populate, as The Pet Thief goes on Freda’s motivations, which begin quite righteously and get murkier and murkier as we witness to what extent she is willing to go for her pound of flesh.
So ultimately, despite the difficult reading and the exotic storytelling that marks the novel’s beginning, the overall experience taken from The Pet Thief is a quite familiar one.
Like many of the best stories, at its heart it is about the struggle for identity.
The struggle to transcend where we come from, what we are, and even who we think we are.
While we as an audience try to make sense of the story that Oboy gives to us, our search for clarity mirrors Oboy’s own. He seeks answers to the questions that we all have: who am I and why am I here?
Of course he has a stranger way of asking these questions than when do. But as his story beautifully illustrates, the answers he finds are no weirder than the ones any of us do.
And there’s nothing difficult about reading into that.