The Pet Thief

By Kassten Alonso


March 2013


Reviewed by Alexander Lumans


Kassten Alonso's The Pet Thief begins with noise, movement, and destabilizing escalation:

Tsokka tsokka tsokka.

Running comes. Tsokka tsokka tsokka tsokka. Black boots run. Huh huh red lips puff Huh huh Little fists swing Torn red stockings tic toc tic toc tic tocking. Long brown coat flaflaflap. Allee puddles Black boots splash. Pale throat, black collar Yellow tail wags Red mouth hollers Tsokka tsokka tsokka tsokka tsokka tsokka tsokka.

The opening initiates the reader into a narrative that will call to mind Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (in which Alex narrates the book in a created argot called "Nadsat") as well as Hubert Selby, Jr.'s Requiem for a Dream (which takes narrative liberties via slangy diction, intentional grammatical errors, and odd syntax). However, instead of thrusting the reader into a linguistic realm where he feels like he's trudging letter by arduous letter through some Dothraki epic, Alonso uses his inventions to his advantage. The Pet Thief's unique narrator not only teaches us how to read the book, but in doing so, adds layers to its meaning. The form is validated because it becomes just as important as the function, which is exactly what successful models like Clockwork and Requiem do.

Alonso's choice of narrator? Oboy. He lives in a future dystopian city in France where science and government have joined forces to hybridize animals for the purposes of organ harvesting and biological control. Many experiments (run by a shadow-figure, "Dr. Frankenstein") have failed, resulting in by-products such as "cat-people." Oboy is a cat-person. As hybrids, cat-people are marginalized, feared, and forgotten by "anthro" society even though they retain both human and animal qualities. Early on, Oboy escapes Doolittle's pet shop and joins up with Freda, another cat-person who soon becomes his mentor. He becomes part of Freda's underground pet-stealing gang, which is led by Swan, another hybrid. Freda believes all hybrids have been unjustly victimized; stealing pets is her gang's way of fighting back: "Theres no way we can stop demand. So we try to dent supply. Labs place orders for a specific type of animal to class b dealers, who in turn call on bunchers to do the dirty work. Pale fists shake. Bunchers. The sunzabitches are the real pet thieves." Having never been properly introduced to human society outside of his cage, Oboy cannot think or speak except in mimicry. But he is physically gifted, especially when it comes to stealing pets, and he soon adapts to his new life on the streets.

The plot rolls and pitches forward with Oboy at the center. Freda repeatedly pushes him away and then draws him back as a necessary part of her life. Swan and his gang do the same to Freda. The city itself is slowly being demolished yet still proves to be a haven for its citizens on the fringe. Then, on Oboy's first solo mission, he brings home a human baby. Despite the fact that the child is an easy outlet for affection, frustration, and fear (all of which have been steadily building in the underground world since Oboy joined it), the child's arrival sets in motion the eventual dissolution of all the characters. If it were told in straightforward prose, The Pet Thief would still be as haunting as it is compelling because it refuses to stop escalating, especially in the second half. In the last thirty pages, Freda and Oboy are each brought to their personal nadirs. It is difficult not to feel for these characters in the way one feels for Clockwork's Alex or Requiem's four protagonists. Yes, they've made wrong decisions, and yes, they've suffered the painful consequences and have now finally sought a way out, but what refuge really exists in this world for them? The reader soon begins to mourn not the characters' personal mistakes, but the environment that caused them. Oboy's world is a dark and callous one, but that doesn't mean it lacks vitality. The vitality suggests the possibility for growth. The hope that Oboy, Freda, and all the hybrids could one day—by their own hand—acquire a legitimate identity is in truth the darkest aspect of the story. Toward the end, one character explains, "In the real world, David gets pulverized," intimating that the walls these characters are up against will never be brought down. But society needs its criminals as much as it needs its heroes, and Alonso employs this maxim adroitly, using it to drive his tension from start to finish.

With that said, this review would be remiss if it didn't also focus on Alonso's formal decisions. These choices elevate The Pet Thief from simple dystopian noir to a complex investigation of self. As you'll see in the following excerpts, Alonso subverts our expectations with regard to how a typical text should look, read, and move:

My eye Supermiracle bubble wand hides.

Black Freda boots k k k k stone steps. Arms legs sit, legs walk. Red tips cigarettes. Look my music came in. Its the latest. Thats great. Lets go back to your place and check it out. Lions watch.

Pink curtains my hands push. Dusty sill my foots tastes. Little allee windows shine. Pipes, grey boxes, spinny metal onions, cob roof. Fire escape colds my foots. My tummy Bunny bumps Black coat bunny whines. Soft black hair my taped fingers rub. Big dark eyes. Bunny nose twitches, bunny mouth sighs. Soft fuzzy ears my fingers rub. Big dark eyes shut.

By surprising us with such unexpected language, Alonso draws specific attention to its central role in Oboy's character. Throughout most of the book, there's no use of "I" as a sentence subject—instead, objects do much of the acting. Moreover, there are punctuation errors, misspelled words, a dash of French patois, inverted syntaxes, changing font sizes, and a lack of correct terminology. All that, admittedly, is a lot to handle in a single narrator's POV. But remember: Oboy is essentially a sheltered child. And these formal choices match a child's new experiences of the world. The confusion itself is a source of tension. And it never lasts so long that the reader loses all comprehension; other characters like Freda clarify certain situations and give stability to what may often feel like shaky ground. Nevertheless, Oboy is still the heart and mouth here. Through his language, he takes you into unknown territory. It's one of the hallmarks of a dynamic first-person perspective: the ability to go anywhere, think anything, and do everything or nothing. What's particularly unique about the focus on Oboy's language usage is how close it brings us to his experience. Because the reader witnesses what he does with his words (e.g., "spinny metal onions" as those rooftop AC vents) and how he grows (eventually, he begins to use "I" as a sentence subject), the reader actually feels like he's become part of Oboy's developing identity.

Identity is a concept all the hybrids struggle with. Are they cats? People? Cat-people? At one point Freda explains, "When we try too hard to act like them, when we get so focused on behaving just right, on walking and chewing gum at the same time, we lose all appropriate emotion and intonation and evocation We give ourselves away." Their central quandary: who are we and where, if anywhere, do we fit in? This tension between states of being and meaning is manifested throughout the novel. Oboy names the baby he kidnaps "Bunny," and Freda ends up nursing and caring for Bunny as if she were a human parent. The stolen parrots that wander their hideout mimic both their owners' and their kidnappers' speech. There's even a clever nod to the myth of Leda and the Swan, the one in which Zeus (in swan-form) impregnates Leda on the same night her husband does, resulting in two immortal children and two mortal ones. This kind of fine layering is smartly-wrought, and it never misses a beat in the progressing story.

It's nothing radical to say we are products of both nature and nurture, and Alonso isn't looking to take a stand either way. In fact, he deconstructs any efforts to do that when Freda says late in the book:

I thought it all boiled down to identity, you know. Freda says. Its not who you are, its who you think you are. Rarely those are the same. No one is that consistent. No one is that sane.

Identity. A persistent entity. A sense of self. An equation wots always most of all never completely true. How can it be, when consciousness is a yammering narrative, memorys a falsehood, and language, a killing tool.

This is a nice move on Alonso's part because it releases the reader from the looming debate without abandoning its momentum or consideration.

By growing throughout the novel (developing his vocabulary, syntax, etc.) and yet still staying true to certain touchstones of his development (e.g., the supermiracle bubble wand that he likes to hide behind), Oboy at least demonstrates what has come to make up his consciousness. And that's all that matters in this work. At the heart of it, he is a product of a corrupt system, but he's also broken out of certain systems, which is the pattern he will follow for the rest of his life. And so the novel ends how it began: with noise, with movement, and with escalation past the last page. This single-focus on Oboy is not an easy out on Alonso's part; rather, The Pet Thief is a nuanced, evolving EEG scan of one distinct point of view. And by involving you so deeply in Oboy's continuing identity-formation and his search for a place in this dystopian society, the author compels you to re-examine not just language in general, but also how much of your identity stems from that language and its unique meaning. Alonso makes hybrids of us all.