The words peculiar, uncanny, and strange appear in the early portion of Bragi Ólafsson’s The Pets, and the novel’s plot can certainly be described as such. Emil, a recent lottery winner on a return flight to Iceland, tries to listen to Miles Davis and instead befriends a linguist. A discussion about the plural form ensues: Walkmen? Walkmans? Emil then runs into Greta, an old crush. He flirts with Greta, buys a lot of booze at duty free, returns to his apartment, and spends the rest of the book hiding under his bed.
Why? Because “the misogynist, alcoholic, compulsive gambler and, most recently, burgler Havard Knutsson” is on the loose, having escaped a Swedish mental hospital. Years ago Emil and Havard survived a disastrous house-sitting spell—most of the pets died—and now Havard, schlepping around a ratty bag of house-sitting souvenirs, lands on Emil’s doorstep in Reykjavík. Emil hides under his bed and Havard has no qualms about breaking in. When guests arrive, including Armann the linguist and Greta the old crush, they open up the duty-free bottles with Havard and make themselves at home. Emil can only listen and fret, trying not to sneeze under the mattress coils, a Nordic version of Gregor Samsa (whose sister’s name was Grete).
In a few ways, The Pets parallels Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which Ólafsson translated into Icelandic. Both focus on chance meetings; both feature a linguist. Auster’s interest in possessions, or loss of possessions, seems influential as well: the duty-free liquor in The Pets is a source of comedy and a partial cause of Emil’s extended entrapment—that and his inability to face the messy entanglements in his living room. Emil, frozen by embarrassment, unwilling to emerge, instead worries about the mishandling of his CD collection.
Ólafsson, who cites David Lynch as an influence, enjoys comic “scenes that are very shallow and profound at the same time.” The bed premise affords exactly this sort of comedy. Emil must infer what’s going on from sound, touch, and smell (ongoing banter; frigid air from the open door; cigarette smoke). “I can’t decide whether Armann is teasing Havard,” Emil thinks from his post, and the possibility of teasing provides a useful inflection here. The kind of adverbial indicators we might usually resist become necessary: “‘Stop reading his email,’ Greta repeats angrily.” Emil’s limited point of view also provides context and backstory: “I can feel Greta move her behind around on the bed, and then I hear her pick up something from my son Halldor’s toy box. It sounds like she is looking at a fire engine I gave him last summer.” This concise description forces the reader to absorb (as Emil imagines) Greta’s behind, the son’s toy, Halldor himself, and Greta’s interest in children’s things.
By the end of the novel Emil seems as creepy as Havard, who at least is willing to display his flaws. That said, when the “smelly lump” flops on the bed, naked, bearing his weight down on the coils, we feel for Emil, who has positioned himself into a very cramped existence. Unwilling to speak, he listens as a new connection is forged on the mattress above. Thus concludes Ólafsson’s artful mystery about dead animals, mundane objects, and disobedient people. All of these, alas, are pets too hard to keep.