Trafficking narratives are fun and exhilarating. They have clear heroes and nefarious evildoers. The first episode of Netflix's Daredevil series establishes the vigilante heroes do-gooder status by having him beat the crap out of a black guy trying to ship hapless, screaming, inarticulate but pretty white women into slavery. In 2011, Nicholas Kristof rode along on a raid of a Cambodian brothel in 2011, live-tweeting all the while. The white savior swoops down to rescue underage girls—and then swoops out again, not sticking around to find out what the cops do to the women they "rescue." There's plenty of evidence that Cambodian authorities abuse women working in brothels, but that doesn't matter, since these narratives aren't about the women. They're about the heroes, and the rush of vicarious prurient moral vindication readers can indulge in while traveling along with Nick, Daredevil, or the police. Everyone wants to rescue the compromised damsel in distress. That's what great stories are made of.
Laura Agustín's novel The Three-Headed Dog is, deliberately, by these standards, not a great story. Agustín is a scholar and researcher whose book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry pilloried the standard sex trafficking narrative. Agustín argues that the notion of innocent young girls exploited, waiting to be rescued by daredevil Kristofs, is a pernicious myth. People who cross borders generally do so to find a better life. They end up doing sex work because it can sometimes be the best option available, especially given prejudiced restrictions placed on immigrant entry and employment. Immigrants "get underpaid, pawed, beaten and humiliated and have no job security," she says in The Three-Headed Dog. "Police maltreat them, and when they are rescued from bad situations they are probably deported. But also they escape destinies they saw as rotten, see a bit of the world, learn new trades, have lives, send money home." Immigrants are often victimized, but they aren't solely victims. Their stories are complicated, without a satisfying moral. No one's life is organized around an exciting rescue narrative.
The Three-Headed Dog doesn't have an exciting rescue narrative. Félix Vidal, a transplanted Argentine living on Spain's Costa del Sol, owns a restaurant and occasionally works as a private detective. She's hired by a desperate mom to find Eddy, her son, who was supposed to fly in from the Dominican Republic. Eddy disappeared en route. Was he nabbed by nefarious traffickers? Nah. The guy who was supposed to get Eddy to Spain got news that someone was waiting to rough him up at the rendezvous, and so diverted Eddy and other charges to Madrid—a city that is cold and confusing but still, for Eddy, exhilarating. Félix eventually finds him and brings him home, but he dislikes his step-father, and is soon setting off on his own again, back to Madrid, where he may or may not get involved in selling sex.
Eddy isn't the typical victim of sex trafficking narratives; he's not a girl, for one thing, and he's probably gay. He's not the typical young person you see in novels, either—he's neither precocious, nor chosen, nor ambitious. His goals are mostly short term; warmer clothes, a better haircut, a job. Short-sighted, without many connections, it's likely he'll be taken advantage of, in big ways or small—but then, being taken advantage of is the fate of most people.
Exploitation in The Three-Headed Dog is a fact of life, a constant backdrop too ubiquitous to be felled with a single punch or raid. "It is impossible to really help many people—lasting help I mean," Félix says. "I know that." She searches for missing family members as a favor to loved ones, in the hope that she's doing some good, but she's cognizant that people who are lost don't necessarily want to be found. She's not the protagonist of some adventure novel.
Which does leave open the question, what kind of novel is she the protagonist of? The Amazon description of The Three-Headed Dog compares it to noir, but that's somewhat misleading. Noir is built around mistrust, deceit, dramatic betrayals, and often around hidden sexuality and passion. The Three-Headed Dog avoids most of those dramatic genre markers—but it doesn't really fit into literary fiction tropes either. Félix isn't struggling with deep psychological conflicts, or with infidelity. On the contrary, she's staunchly single, and quite happy with a life without romantic entanglements. In fact, she does some borderline sex work herself, wining and dining men on behalf of Henry, an upscale businessman who operates on various sides of the law. "You are really the classic escort, the companion he can dress up and display or use to send messages to avoid sullying his own hands," a friend tells her. She's not offended by the characterization. "I use Henry as much as he uses me," she notes pragmatically.
Félix's story has no particular narrative arc. She doesn't come to understand herself more deeply; she doesn't triumphantly rescue anyone; she doesn't defeat the guy who passes for a villain—a low-level gangster type who is, in any case, a migrant himself, trying to get away from poverty and dead-end prospects just as Eddy is. The Three-Headed Dog dispenses with the rescue storyline, and so finds itself outside of familiar storylines altogether. Freed of the need for dramatic payoff, the novel is willing to let its characters alone to inhabit their lives, without making them dance to someone else's genre beats. The result is satisfyingly unsatisfying—a book that quietly shows how savior narrative expectations can be as limiting, and as cruel, as borders.