At its most effective, the work of Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin conjures the paranoid sensation of realizing, perhaps belatedly, that one is being watched by many unseen, hostile eyes. A visceral and whimsical eeriness, part Shirley Jackson and part Purity Ring lyrics, hovers over her surreal stories of swindled people slowly wising up. Read even two of her books, and you begin to see a consistent concern with class exploitation; the institutionalized scamming of the art world; the violence of puberty, parturition, marriage, and parenthood; and the gratuitous, gleeful brutality of the strong against the weak. Continuing that project, Schweblin’s latest novel Little Eyes (Riverhead Books) turns to the invasive technologies that have deceived us over the past fifteen years—albeit granting them a fuzzy, friendly form.
The world of Little Eyes is captivated by a new must-have toy called a “kentuki” that anyone old enough to remember the Furby craze will recognize to a degree. Like a Furby, the kentuki is a plastic and felt animal-on-wheels. Unlike a Furby, it is inhabited and remote controlled by one randomly assigned anonymous person (a “dweller”), ostensibly for the pleasure of the kentuki’s owner (a “keeper”). The toys offer companionship to lonely people and open windows into different (and often, better) lives for the dwellers. More to the point, the kentuki allows people to become pets. Endearing as that may be, there’s a darker agenda at work in Schweblin’s novel.
“I love animals, and I have always had pets,” Schweblin told the Los Angeles Review of Books last year. “But reflecting on it, I think sometimes these relationships have a lot of craziness, autocompasión, and abuse, and they say a lot about us as people,” as does this book. A perfect fit for this moment of zoombombing, Little Eyes nevertheless avoids being a ripped-from-the-headlines sellout and instead offers an intelligent tale about the lives that new technologies mediate.
Told in vignettes, Little Eyes explores what happens when kentukis fall into the hands of people jonesing for adventure, amusement, affection, and a bit of abuse. The indolent Alina, of Oaxaca, redirects her resentment for her unfaithful installation-artist boyfriend onto a crow-shaped kentuki she names Colonel Sanders. Martin, an Antiguan boy who dwells in a rogue dragon-shaped kentuki in Norway, is jailbroken by a kentuki liberation front before setting out to see snow for the first time. Emilia, a retired Peruvian empty-nester, dwells in the pink bunny-shaped kentuki of a German girl whose lover may be up to no good. Grigor, an enterprising Croatian who sells prescreened kentukis to prospective dwellers, accidentally voyeurs his way into becoming an unlikely hero.
In many of Schweblin’s stories, there is an egregious imbalance of power that someone exploits with impunity, only for them to realize too late that it is they who are in the subordinate role. Here, the kentukis become the conduit of that asymmetry and the risks it entails, risks that dim in comparison to the pleasures of deluding oneself into feeling seen and cherished. “So every day, someone at the other end of the world did all that for her,” Emilia says about the daily maintenance her German keeper performs on the pink bunny. “She smiled and put her phone away. That was some attention.”
The surprisingly heartfelt relationships the keepers and dwellers form throughout the novel are its primary delight, made all the more enjoyable by the deadpan tone with which Schweblin writes them and her avoidance of upfront exposition of the kentukis’ technology. With each vignette, we learn more about it, its risks, and the cultural conversations it’s causing. It’s a clever structure that generates the tension that makes this book, like Schweblin’s other work, so binge-worthy: one must keep reading to figure out what, exactly, a kentuki can do, as much as one reads to find out what the dwellers and keepers will do with them.
However, the structure of the book also seems to me to be too leisurely for the twists in the plot to feel earned. The final devastations feel rushed, almost as if they were added late to give the book the bite that makes Schweblin’s previous work, especially her short stories, feel so fully realized. I confess I finished the book unsatisfied, having expected a heavier dose of Schweblin’s surrealist body horror and folkloric dread. Yet, something about my reaction to that lack feels entirely appropriate.
This book is a new phase of Schweblin’s writing, a self-conscious shift in her methods for exploring the small-scale systems of domination that occupy her extant work. However, In Little Eyes, she deemphasizes the surrealism that colored her previous writing so distinctly: gone are the grotesque bodies, the sinister borderlands, and the coy, capricious presence of magic. Instead, Little Eyes is dominated by a deadpan realism flavored with her signature eeriness. On balance, it is less a drastic break from her style than an experiment within it. Schweblin’s willingness to play and push is apparent here, indicative of her imagination and exciting unpredictability. She proves that she has much more to show than the sinister surrealism she is known for