Daniel Froid on Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes

Samanta Schweblin’s fiction unnerves me, and it will probably unnerve you too. It is unnerving because of how it confronts the stuff of everyday lives: how we use technology, the spaces that we live in, and the horror that lies beneath the everyday. Such horror thrives on secrets—the creeping revelation of the unseen or ineffable or incomprehensible—and on characters’ ability to interpret what they see. Sometimes those mysterious secrets turn out to be relatively mundane after all. This is the realm of the gothic, a genre popularized in part by Ann Radcliffe in the late eighteenth century. When Jane Austen satirized Radcliffe and her cohort in Northanger Abbey, she created a heroine who can’t help but misapprehend the situation, every time; anyone she meets could be harboring a murderous secret. What do the mysterious closed-off rooms in Northanger Abbey hide—perhaps a corpse or an imprisoned wife? The gothic often works by relying on characters’ flawed perceptions or interpretations. Reworking the gothic for the contemporary era, Samanta Schweblin’s method is to apprehend the situation correctly, every time; the horror she evokes is a heightening of the mundane in which she shows how what seems mundane often leads to terrifying, even calamitous, and inevitable consequences.

Take Fever Dream, the novel that, when translated into English in 2017, first brought her to the attention of Anglophone readers. A woman, Amanda, wakes up in a clinic, unsure why she’s there, plagued by the unceasing questions of a little boy who is not her child. As Amanda tells the child what happened and how she got there, she produces a story of insidious environmental threat. Men show up in trucks full of barrels. The grass is wet, but it’s not wet with dew. Animals sicken and die; children are deformed. And what happened to her daughter? This is no post-apocalyptic landscape, however. Fever Dream is concerned with the consequences of pesticide use; this is what’s happening everyday. Believe it—and be scared.

For the past year, the everyday has been marked by forms of voyeurism. Many of us have been doing little else but staring at computer screens, sometimes gaining unexpectedly intimate glimpses at our friends’ and coworkers’ private lives: pets and children, their home décor, the attempts to make normal work schedules square with the demands of home life. Whatever our situation, whatever the demands on our time and mental health and physical capacity, there are several constants: the meetings, the tweeting, the scrolling, the staring, the sallow faces peering out into the void. Little Eyes, Schweblin’s newest book, is more playful, less tense, but no less unnerving than Fever Dream. It is largely concerned with the peculiar minor voyeurisms that most of us practice every day, which have only been exacerbated over the past year. In suggesting that Little Eyes has much to teach us about post-pandemic life, I am not trying to announce, again, that a work of fiction has, say, predicted the pandemic, or that it shows us what life in quarantine is like. We don’t need a novel’s predictions, because we know what’s up: government inaction failed us! We don’t need depictions of quarantine life: we have to live it! And so I won’t say that, because that’s not what I mean about Little Eyes. Yet it was disquieting to read Little Eyes and recognize the rhythms of a life spent before the screen and to apprehend that her tale is perfectly true.

Published this year in a translation by Megan McDowell, Little Eyes presents us with the kentuki. A kentuki is a toy you invite into your home as a member of the family, an electronic pet. Your cute little dragon or crow or bear, however, houses a camera, through which another person, anywhere else in the world, keeps watch and controls the toy’s movements. Readers old enough to remember the 1990s may recognize the kentuki: it recalls the Furby, a primitive toy robot released in 1998 that became an immediate sensation. My siblings and I would take turns hiding our Furbies on shelves and in dresser drawers; I can still remember their large peering eyes and the dah-boos and noo-lahs of Furbish. I didn’t know at the time that the NSA banned Furbies from its property, citing concerns with their potential to record information. Even when I was old enough to grasp the concerns about Furbies and survellience, I still thought that such security concerns were essentially a matter of urban legend, not national policy. In Little Eyes, the kentuki’s primary selling point is that it is always watching—that a real person looks through its eyes. You can purchase either the toy itself or access to a connection. Each kentuki enables one and only one connection, which, once lost—for instance, by letting the battery run out—can never be recovered. The kentukis thus allow for a fragile, ephemeral, distorted form of social media.

The book opens by revealing the stakes of such a connection. In South Bend, Indiana, teenage Robin introduces her friends to her kentuki, a panda. The girls gather ’round, take off their bras, and reveal themselves to its dead eyes. Then they place a Ouija board on the floor and attempt to communicate with it. One of the first things the panda does, predictably, is to address them with slurs. Soon it issues a demand for $2,400 dollars to prevent the dweller from leaking nude photos. If the girls don’t pay, it will reveal more secrets: Robin’s mother on the toilet, Robin’s father “saying things” to the maid, Robin’s gossip about her friends and the private moments she spends pretending to be them. Robin’s friends stalk out of her house, while Robin tries to destroy the kentuki, eventually trapping it in a bucket and leaving it to die. A kentuki connection could be quite innocent, a form of warm companionship, but you and I both know that, if such a product were placed on the market, acts of lewdness and of extortion would almost immediately follow. It would disrupt friendships and potentially cause great harm. But people would buy it in droves.

Kentukis divide the world into keepers and dwellers. Either you like to watch, or you would like to be seen. (Ask yourself: What are you? I know full well that, if forced to choose, I would be a dweller.) Schweblin offers various glimpses into kentuki culture: the divorced father in Umbertide whose kentuki becomes a kind of co-parent, the artist’s wife in Oaxaca who grows bored of staying at home while her husband works on his art project and finds in her kentuki an increasingly bizarre source of distraction, a man in Zagreb who buys tablets by the dozen and resells them, hooked to kentukis all over the world, advertising what kind of experience each one offers. The stories are, to some extent, unsurprising; or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they unfold with a perverse and palpable logic. And yet the book makes for compulsive reading. As I said, I am a dweller, and dwell I did in the lives of the kentuki-addicted. One character, Emilia, an old woman in Lima who enjoys watching and lightly judging her keeper’s life in Erfurt, muses on what being a keeper or dweller might reveal about herself, her son: “It took her even a second longer to realize her son had bought her the connection to a kentuki, and on the other hand, he’d bought a real kentuki for himself, like the one Eva had in Erfurt. Her son would rather be a keeper than a dweller? That is, he would rather have have than be? And just what did that tell her about her own son?”

Little Eyes is not really a horror novel, or if it is, it’s an odd sort of horror. It simply follows the stories of various kentuki owners, allowing us to peek into their lives. Schweblin shows us how kentukis lead to minor acts of violence and fear but also more melodramatic situations, such as the panda bear’s attempt at extortion. Yet the events never feel melodramatic, because Schweblin’s aim is more satiric than anything. And as the book continues, we begin to get a sense of the world beyond these individual lives and its shifting response to the kentukis. Grigor, the Croatian man who sells kentuki-connected tablets, begins to worry how much longer he can sustain his sales “before some law absorbed the gap in regulations.” Marvin, a lonely Antiguan boy, coordinates an escape from the shop in Honningsvåg where his dragon lives, ending up a member of the Liberation Club, one of a number of small organizations dedicated to the idea of kentuki liberation: “It had occurred to someone that mistreating a kentuki was as cruel as keeping a dog tied up all day in the sun, even crueler if you considered that it was a human being on the other end.” The ex-wife of Enzo, the lonely father who lives in Umbertide, begins to fear her son’s relationship with the kentuki. After all, as Enzo continues to treat it as a kind of partner, it spends significant time alone with his child. (So why won’t the dweller call Enzo when he offers his phone number?)

In all of these scenarios, Schweblin makes use of fairly ordinary premises: many children spend hours on YouTube, for example, just as I dutifully put in my time as a pre-teen chatting with strangers on forums. But by shifting the kaleidoscopic just so, making the colors and shapes look a little different, she draws attention to the moral dimensions of the technology we consume, how it encourages us to think of people as objects or toys, how easily our senses of sympathy or concern give way to simple curiosity. But she does not judge or scold. Little Eyes stages the questions, as the act of reading the book itself comprises an act of voyeuristic, potentially predatory, lurking. Though I kept wondering whether these disparate threads would be knitted together by the end, that doesn’t happen; the point isn’t to reveal how everyone is connected but to reveal the extent to which we aren’t.

In the book’s most harrowing episode, Grigor and his assistant, controlling a kentuki in an isolated location in Brazil, discover that it resides with a kidnapped girl. Managing to engage in rudimentary communication with her, and to contact local police stations, they appear to effect her rescue—though when they deliver her home they discover the truth; it seems that they’ve made the situation worse. Grigor responds by terminating the connection, having lost the desire to look. Kentukis don’t alter anyone’s personality, and they don’t drive people toward greater depravity. They make possible ever-new expressions of the same old sorry human nature. This is why Little Eyes seems so appropriate for 2020. The ways that we use our screens, the ways social media seems to replace all other forms of discussion, the ways that we try to connect or fail to connect have been thrown into relief by the events of 2020, but human nature hasn’t changed all that much.

Little Eyes is rich in terms of the kinds of thinking it makes possible. On paper, the idea sounds almost too obvious to sustain an entire book. Yet it works marvelously. Its strength lies not in what but how—in Schweblin’s cold analytical eye; in her characters’ everyday forms of desperation, boredom, pettiness, cruelty, that so quickly spiral into more dramatic registers; in the squirming acts of voyeurism to which she invites us, as absorbing as they are distressing. As always, for the kentuki-addicted as well as for us, we can’t help but look. What is it we hope to see?

Daniel Froid is a PhD candidate at Purdue University, where he is completing his dissertation on devils in eighteenth-century British literature. His work has been published most recently by The 18th-Century Common and Children’s Literature Association Quarterly.

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