Little Eyes, Samanta Schweblin (Oneworld 978-1-786-07792-9, £14.99, 256pp, hc) March 2020. (Riverhead Books 978-0-525-54136-3, $26.00, 256pp, hc) May 2020.
In 2017 Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin caught the attention of English-language readers, critics, and the judges of the International Man Booker Prize with Fever Dream, a nightmarish novella that, amongst other things, critiqued the environmental effect of pesticides. She followed this up in 2019 with a collection of short fiction, Mouthful of Birds, that further enhanced her reputation as an author willing to tackle social issues – sexism, abortion, infidelity – through an absurdist, frequently horrific lens. This year sees the publication of Schweblin’s first novel, Little Eyes, translated by the always incredible Megan McDowell and recently longlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize. Stylistically, the book is a departure for Schweblin. It foregoes the hallucinatory prose of Fever Dream and the weird imagery of Mouthful of Birds for a more conventional, mainstream flavour. That said, what’s consistent across all these works is Schwelbin’s desire to tackle contemporary concerns. In the case of Little Eyes, it’s our all-consuming relationship with the digital world.
Little Eyes centres on a peculiar brand of interactive pet branded ”kentucki.” When activated by its ”keeper,” the kentucki – ostensibly a modem with a mechanised base and a camera wrapped around a stuffed animal (a bunny, an owl, a dragon) – waits for a connection to a central server ”and for the server to link with another user, someone in another part of the world who want[s] to be a kentucki ‘dweller.”’ When that connection is made, the dweller takes control of the kentucki and can follow their keeper around the house. There are several things to note, though. Number one: the keeper has no idea who is controlling their kentucki – it could be an eight-year-old child, a 70-year-old grandmother, or anyone in between. Number two: while the dweller can watch their keeper, they generally have no means of communicating beyond the kentucki opening and closing its eyes. Number three: if the keeper fails to take care of their kentucki, namely charge its battery every night, the connection with the dweller, but also the central server, is forever lost.
Schweblin splits her story amongst multiple characters from around the world. In Lima, we have Emilia, who has been gifted a kentucki connection by her son in the hope it will fill some of the void left by the death of her husband. Over in Oaxaca, Alina, residing with an aloof artist, decides out of boredom to buy a kentucki, which she gradually begins to loathe. In contrast, Marvin, with the money left by his mother (she recently passed away), purchases a kentucki connection with the dream of leaving the heat of Antigua (preferably as a dragon) for somewhere, anywhere else in the world. Enzo (a resident of Umbertide in Italy) picks up a kentucki on the advice of a psychologist, in the hope it will provide therapeutic benefits for his son, who is struggling with the divorce of his parents. Finally, we have Grigor in Zagreb who hopes to make a fortune from selling kentucki server connections to people looking to choose their keeper rather than rely on a random server connection. Alternating between these five main threads are one-off stories that further broaden our understanding of the keeper/dweller relationship. For example, the novel begins with a panda bear extorting three teenage girls – who have just bared their breasts at the kentucki – by ingeniously communicating its demands via a Ouija Board. Later in the novel, we get this beautiful, self-contained story of two kentuckis falling in love.
Aside from the opening chapter, Schweblin doesn’t narrow in on how kentuckis might be abused for nefarious purposes. Instead, her interest lies in our psychological interactions with technology, making the persuasive case, at least from the perspective of the dweller, that for all the benefits a device like the kentucki might provide, it can’t resolve a person’s deep-seated issues, their flaws, insecurities, and anxieties. We see this with Emilia and Marvin, who use the kentucki to escape the narrow confines of their world. Emilia derives pleasure from watching her keeper perform mundane tasks, while Marvin realises a dream, albeit mediated through the kentucki, of touching pure white snow. But when things go wrong, the kentucki only reminds them that they are trapped in their present circumstances, while also amplifying their sense of loss: Emilia misses the loving touch of her husband; Marvin wishes his mother were still alive. Even Grigor, who makes a good living selling kentucki connections and is involved in a thrilling set piece where he and his business partner (and maybe girlfriend) use a kentucki to save a girl from a child smuggling ring, comes to realise that the technology can’t replace a human, physical connection.
On the flip side, when the narrative switches to the keepers (Enzo and Alina), the argument is less compelling. Schweblin never fully articulates why anyone would rush out to buy a kentucki. Yes, there’s the novelty, and the toys provide a limited form of companionship (and, of course, there will be those who will get a kick out of being watched), but the anonymity of the dweller – even wrapped around a cute toy – would dissuade most people from purchasing the pet. Enzo and Alina’s experiences as keepers – he discovers his dweller may be a pedophile and she invents horrible ways of torturing her kentucki – only reinforce this view. The upshot is that I found it difficult to imagine the kentucki as anything more than a thought experiment.
Having said that, Little Eyes remains a fascinating attempt at testing the boundaries of our digital existence, foregrounding the psychological, emotional implications of technology above the concerns around privacy and security.
This review and more like it in the July 2020 issue of Locus.
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