The etymology of the word “dwell” can be traced to the Old English dwellan, meaning “to go astray.” But somewhere along the way, dwell came to mean “to remain for a time,” trading in one kind of entropy for another. Samanta Schweblin’s latest novel enacts both those meanings. Hopping among more than a dozen countries and characters, “Little Eyes” tracks the rise of robotic stuffed animals that are bought and cared for by “keepers” and controlled remotely by “dwellers.” When the animals — or “kentukis” — are turned on, each is connected to a single person somewhere in the world who has purchased a serial code in exchange for receiving a literal lens into its keeper’s life. The connection can be broken in a number of ways, but the severance is irreversible.
It’s an eerie but not unfamiliar premise: You invite a small machine into your home that watches, listens and responds to the way you live. But the twist is that their controlling consciousness is human rather than algorithmic. Though the kentukis cannot speak, keepers and dwellers devise their own methods of communication, and the scenarios that arise from these new languages and relationships are both endearing and chilling.
In Umbertide, Italy, Enzo becomes the keeper of a mole with whom he believes he shares a friendship, until he realizes the dweller has developed an unhealthy obsession with his son. In Oaxaca, Alina acquires a crow as an amusing diversion while accompanying her artist boyfriend to a residency, but she grows to resent the pet and inflicts various types of harm upon its furry body. In Antigua, Guatemala, a boy named Marvin becomes a dweller to a dragon kentuki in a shop window in Honningsvåg, Norway, until one day he finds himself released into the world, part of a kentuki liberation movement. In Lima, Peru, Emilia, an older woman, inhabits a pink and white rabbit in Erfurt, Germany, and loves the idea of being loved by her keeper, to disturbing ends.
Each of these connections unfolds with a sense of uncanny foreboding, like the feeling of walking down a dark hallway without a sliver of light. It’s the sensation of being simultaneously led astray and lured into a trap. Even moments of innocent affection between keeper and dweller cast shadows of possibly hidden intentions. Alina’s malevolent behavior arises from a moment when she believes her crow has violated her personal space. Emilia grows protective of her keeper, threatening the woman’s boyfriend. Enzo, though aware that his mole’s dweller has been phone-stalking his family, cannot bring himself to break the connection. Two kentukis, when activated in a Barcelona nursing home, commit what can only be called mechanical suicide.
In “Little Eyes,” Schweblin proves herself a master at conjuring portraits in miniature, each storyline illuminating some new aspect of the human ability to extract meaning and debasement from technology. Like pets, Schweblin’s robots become vessels for psychological projection — monsters filled with adoration, anxiety, disgust, malice and devotion. The effect of gazing into or out from their little eyes creates the unsettling effect of a mise en abyme, an infinite, unsettling loop that once activated, can be broken only by complete destruction.
The Argentinian novelist’s last two books, along with “Little Eyes,” all translated by Megan McDowell, have been longlisted for the International Man Booker Prize and translated into dozens of languages. “Fever Dream,” a novella constructed around a conversation between a dying woman and a boy, is a contemporary ghost tale whose two voices volley back and forth the story of their demise. “Mouthful of Birds,” a collection of eerie short stories, walks a tightrope through a gantlet of fresh horrors — a girl who craves the sustenance of live birds, a woman who purges the husk of her unborn child.
“Little Eyes” operates on the tension created by dread, situating Schweblin within a canon of writers (Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison) whose rendering of horror ultimately exposes the gorgeous, rotten and wounded parts of ourselves. Animals with whom humans have creepy relationships are a reoccurring theme in Schweblin’s work, as are questions about the systems and powers that shape the world — corporate agriculture, technology, wealth. However, unlike her previous work, which sometimes has the effect of walking around the world with blinders on, “Little Eyes” is based in a lucid reality drawn with clinical precision that unburdens the reader from grappling with the absurdity of furry robots on wheels but also creates the illusion of solid ground.
At no point does Schweblin subject her world to internal interpretation; she leaves this job to the reader, trusting us to extract our own conclusions and project our own anxieties onto her surreality. Though Schweblin’s characters are introspective and in degrees aware of the concrete and subliminal effects of their relationships to technology, only rarely do they gain any true understanding of the existential quandary of it all. In Schweblin’s world, no matter which end of the relationship you find yourself on, entropy is inevitable.
Translated by Megan McDowell
Riverhead: 256 pages, $26
Pariseau is a writer and editor in New Orleans.