:: Article

Little Eyes

By Louis Rogers.

Samanta Schweblin (trans. Megan McDowell) Little Eyes (Oneworld, 2020)

We are used to the idea that certain pieces of technology are so incorporated into our lives that we can’t imagine life, or ourselves, without them. Less acknowledged is that necessary period, just after such a product’s release, in which it turns from novelty to given. This a two-way absorption – product into life, life into product – which, as part of its work, erases itself from memory: it’s hard to remember when smartphones were half-ubiquitous or sometimes essential. (It’s possible that I’m interested in this transitional phase because I belong to the small generation whose childhood, that is, the time in which our personal givens are formed, straddled life pre- and post-internet. I can recall days during which it was easily possible not to encounter a screen and I’m also able see the strangeness of that idea.)

Samanta Schweblin’s new novel Little Eyes is set across this kind of period of technological assimilation. It depicts the rapid rise of devices called Kentukis: zoomorphic cuddly toys with webcams in their eyes, owned by ‘keepers’ and remotely controlled, and watched through, by ‘dwellers’. Kentukis have wheels that permit their dwellers to explore the homes and lives of the keepers to whom they are anonymously and randomly assigned. They can make computerised animal sounds but cannot speak. At the start of the novel – which, appropriately disorientatingly, lacks temporal markers – Kentukis have recently been launched. They are being recommended by evangelistic shop clerks and forward-thinking psychotherapists to tentative or mystified customers. But by the end they are part of the fabric of everyday life: walking the streets of Tel Aviv with their keepers; independently exploring small Norwegian towns with the aid of remote charging points; installed on taxi dashboards, chirping to alert the driver to monitored zones.

The metabolisation of the Kentukis (product into life, life into product) is tracked through interleaved narratives set across the world – in capital cities like Buenos Aires and Zagreb, and obscurer corners like Surumu (Brazil) and Honnigsvåg (Norway). (Jarringly, and somewhat crudely, Sierra Leone is the only place denoted by country rather than city.) Schweblin chops between characters that test the possibilities of the devices, whether for urgent personal reasons, financial gains, or out of idle curiosity. As in her previous works, truly unsettling twists and broadly sticky ends lie in wait. The Kentukis become tools for exploitation and humiliation and vehicles for ill-fated love affairs and tragically misbalanced friendships. Schweblin’s characters become a cast of victims and abusers locked in virtualised power struggles.

These dark turns are not exactly surprising. The Kentukis’ capacity for exploitation is so evident, the devices themselves so plainly sinister, that their seedy misuse seems immediately inevitable. In the opening vignette, set in South Bend, Indiana, three teenage girls on a sleepover find their own vindictive plans turned against them by a dweller that has been making unsavoury recordings through one girl’s Kentuki. Schweblin’s handling of tension and her viscously instantaneous ironic twists, familiar from her short story collection Mouthful of Birds, are delicious – but the fact of the misuse doesn’t shock. Of course creeps and extortionists will be drawn to these things, which effectively work like Chat Roulette with less accountability, and wheels. The idea that these devices draw out the worst in people is credible, their popularity less so.

At first, then, the widespread enthusiasm for Kentukis feels thin and a bit too device-like itself. But the kind of self-assured dismissal that says ‘Of course I wouldn’t fall for that’ steadily emerges as a deep interest of the novel, exposed as a kind of hubris. The parallels are (mercifully) not spelled out explicitly, but Schweblin compels us, chastisingly, to recognise our own happy co-option of transparently exploitative technologies. As the interwoven narratives develop, the conceit duly feels more credible, the second lives offered by the machines more authentically absorbing – or perhaps they are just becoming normalised. Like the characters, our scepticism becomes diluted by what we tell might ourselves is passing interest, but could well be more like indoctrination or a managed addiction.

Schweblin’s previous works have been short – novellas and stories – and Little Eyes is her first novel. In its fractured form, it has the atmosphere and many of the effects of a good story collection. While the characters share a world, the narrative is rarely sustained in a way that asks for the label ‘novelistic’. As with the credibility of the Kentuki conceit, there’s a kind of edifying disappointment on offer here, constituting a rich, if not strictly satisfying, long-form work. The disparate narrative strands fail to connect the way we must surely suspect, even hope, they might: a connection must be revealed between, say, Enzo in Umbertide and Alina in Oaxaca. But it’s not to be, and the failure of connection, a kind of anti-twist, underscores the book’s ultimate preoccupation with thwarted connections.

Between Zagreb and Surumu, Lima and Erfurt, Schweblin’s characters search for human interaction by proxy, while, as a rule, their real-world relationships denature and fester. In Oaxaca, Alina becomes estranged from her artist partner Sven: they stop speaking, and she is troubled by the time it takes him even to notice the tangerine peels she leaves under his pillow in petty spite. In Umbertide, Italy, recently divorced Enzo becomes over-attached to the Kentuki a family therapist suggested buying to help his son acclimatise to two homes. In Lima, Emilia is dismayed by her adult son’s absorption in the life of his keeper, a woman her own age in Croatia – “Since when did her son have such enthusiasm for working women?” While these faulty relationships are somewhat schematic in their plurality, Schweblin’s feel for local idiosyncrasies and her knack for devastating details – a too-big table laid only at one end, in the hope of encouraging a father and son to pass the bread to one another – makes them potently convincing.

Little Eyes is at its best when it’s evoking these haunted lives, scattered around the globe, simmering with jealousy, indignation, desperation, lust, hopes, and faiths good and bad. In Schweblin’s previous books, this all too accurate feel for pathos met surreal narrative machinations with a seamless integration that made the inevitable comparisons to Kafka more accurate than they sound on the cover quotes. I think constantly about a slight story in Mouthful of Birds in which a father boasts obnoxiously about his daughter while gratuitously grinding a butterfly to death between his fingers, only for the unthinkable – and inevitable – to be revealed. Little Eyes doesn’t achieve, nor, I think, aim for, that kind of hair-raising satisfaction. Its real-world characters are not, for all their efforts, truly connected to the otherworldly devices, technical and literary, that share their lives, and an eerie sense of disjuncture characterises the entire reading experience. One way of putting it might be that’s it’s an unusually technological experience, all too evocative of the headache of staring, dully, voyeuristically, at a screen in a musty room all day. I might not be pressing Little Eyes into people’s hands the way I do Fever Dream, but I’m not convinced that isn’t an indicator of the deep, discomforting place it has made itself under my skin.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Louis Rogers is a writer based in London.

@Louis_b_r

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020.