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Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

You remember the immersive experience that Fever Dream was when you read it and how it took a while to rattle the atmospheric tendrils it left behind. You ask yourself why do you continue to be a literary masochist, knowing damn well that you will open this book regardless and dive right in? The first chapter shows the dangers of the latest technological craze that invades the world we are about to inhabit. The first vignette of Samanta Schweblin’s visceral sophomore novel Little Eyes introduces us to these creatures, that we will later learned are called kentukis, animals that look “simple and artless;” they look “similar to a football with one end sliced off so it could stand upright,” with a camera “installed behind its eyes and sometimes it spun around on three wheels hidden in its base, moving forward or backward.” Imagine your favorite fluffy teddy bear, with wheels, following you around or you getting to see the world through the eyes of this bear as the transport that provides it to you. This creature operates on two levels, it gives one person the role of the dweller (a person that virtually lives inside the kentuki and can visit any part of the world from the comfort of their computer), or a keeper (a person that owns the actual creature, can build a connection with the person on the other side, and care for the creature by making sure no harm comes its way and that its battery is always full).

The story seems simple enough, vignettes show us slices of people’s lives around the world that have connected through these creatures. Some are dwellers and some are keepers, we don’t know much about them, but we begin to unfold their stories as we keep reading. We visit Oaxaca, Lima, Umbertide, Barcelona, Zagreb, Antigua, and so many other parts of the world as we begin each new fragment. The story strips down our dependence on the internet in a way that dissipates the fog and makes you look at what you’re sharing and who is behind the other side of this relationship. What are their motivations? How can you be sure who is behind the connections? Kentukis with their benign and cute features are deceptive in what they capture and how that can ultimately be used against you. Even when you think you’re duping the game (as one of the characters does) you may find out that there is no way to win when even your lack of participation is a choice. What happens when a connection is lost here?

In accentuating so many of the dangers of online communities, as well as its advantages, Schweblin takes you on a psychological journey that feels like a Black Mirror episode and has you questioning actions that seemed mundane before. Every time I would judge the characters for how they allowed the kentukis to ingratiate themselves into their lives I would side-eye my phone, and how much I share of myself online. The truth is that the internet and the communities we build within them are a stage where we are constantly performing. In our internet presence we are constantly switching roles between the keepers and the dwellers. This performance cannot exist without an audience providing us with a constant loop of reassurance, and the audience is there waiting for the performer to play their role. It is a symbiotic relationship that can quickly turn parasitic when you find the honeymoon phase ending. This story heightens the drawbacks of what we share online and turns it into your worst nightmare.

Personally I tend to treat my Instagram as a diary where my opinion seems only valid when I share it online and am validated by others that what I thought was right. When I recently decided to take a break from Instagram I felt myself experiencing withdrawals, I missed the people I talked to, and craved the reassurance that they were still there where I had last left them. We are masturbatory creatures that seek any action that will quickly give us pleasure and so the internet is there to constantly feed this want that quickly turns into a need. Tone doesn’t translate through text so the mode of communication that we engage in can quickly become our greatest enemy. By throwing her readers into the nightmarish world of kentukis, Schweblin gathers you in an already familiar world but dissipates the fog and forces you to see the bigger picture: why are the kentukis so popular? What are they providing for you? Why do we allow a complete stranger to follow us around without thought of who is behind the camera? Why do we want to follow a complete stranger around on their mundane day to day? What does it say if you choose to be a keeper or a dweller?

The sad truth of it all is that it can all boil down to finding a sense of community, of feeling lonely and wanting to fit in with the latest trend (many of us have extreme FOMO). Loneliness can drive us to pick up our phones and connect with strangers who seem just like us: we find our niches, build our bonds without much care of what we are truly engaging in. The reward is just too high for us to worry about these things. In a world where we open an app to have a complete strangers pick us up and take us home, where many of us invite strange audiences to witness our day-to-day, and get to know us (even if we don’t know them), it’s not a far leap to imagine what might happen when the fluffy, benign creature that you just simply had to get turns into your worst nightmare or when it reflects that you were the monster all along.

I will say that this didn’t feel as immersive as Fever Dream, but the power of Schweblin is in her taking our lives, twisting them in a fun house mirror and having you see and question your own reflection. She’s utterly brilliant in that respect and I commend Megan McDowell on her translation. When I left Little Eyes I felt haunted by the stories that I had walked and this story has stayed with me. Fans of Fever Dream need not despair, you will still find yourselves plunged into a world that leaves you disoriented, but the urgency will be missing. Instead, like a frog slowly cooking in a pot, you will find the opportunity to jump has left you long ago. I have seen the amplified and heightened dangers of sharing my life online but the rewards surpass the consequences. I have read about them but I believe, that couldn’t happen to me? I think I can be the exception, I can dupe the game and yet the stories in this little green book come back knocking on my mind, their warnings reminding me to be careful, to share myself, but not too much because you never know who’s watching.

The first vignette begins with the dangers of having a kentuki follow you around with no boundaries, how that information can be used against you when the most sensitive part of your life can be under the watchful gaze of a stranger. The first vignette is the horror story that our parents warned us about when we first delved into the internet. This was the warning I didn’t heed because I forgot as I followed the comfort of the other stories, the positives of these little creatures, and the joys and pleasures they could provide. Schweblin made me sure I remembered in the end though! I did not expect the final twist. It was a wonderful book and overall, I recommend it to any fans of Schweblin, fans of Black Mirror, and fans of short stories that tie together in a propulsive ending that will leave you unnerved.

Little Eyes

By Samanta Schweblin

Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

258 pages. 2020.


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