Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream

Schweblin, Samanta (2017), Fever Dream, Oneworld
[Translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell]
ISBN 978-1-78607-090-6

There is only one other book I know that is like this: it’s Lessing’s The Fifth Child. And it’s not just the nightmare depiction of parenthood – it’s also the writing itself, at least as rendered by Megan McDowell. Samanta Schweblin’s debut drops us right in the middle of a story, never really waiting for us to catch up and then increases pace and tension as it goes on. Schweblin’s style is literary enough, but it is the functional precision of it that is most interesting. She has a knack for describing things in unique ways that increase the creeping tension throughout the book, but if you stop and look at the page, there’s nothing there, really. Lessing’s work always struck me as immensely paraphrasable, i.e. ideas and structure were more important than the actual writing, and Lessing herself never exceptionally interested in language. Schweblin’s book is already paraphrased, if we accept that translation is a paraphrase of sorts, but looking at it from the remove of translation it also seems the kind of book that’s eminently translatable – mind you, I’m not saying the writing is bad. Megan McDowell found a fluid English that meets the task that is expected of it: making us understand a complex, mysterious situation with a minimum of words (incidentally. NOWHERE in my copy of the book does it offer the original publication date (2014) or the original title (Distancia de Rescate). If you look at the book it’s like it sprung to life like Athena: fully formed. Shame on you, Oneworld). The form she chose – an storyteller who is interrupted and focused by an impatient interlocutor – conceivably helped the author to focus her story without resorting to drab minimalism. The main storyteller can be imaginative and exact, as in a description of a field of soy “leaning towards us,” but more often than not slips into redundant overnarration, particularly early in the book. It is the exceptionally well executed structure that corrals all this into the kind of terrifying narrative that Fever Dream ends up being. It’s not perfect – the author evades a lot of pitfalls by keeping the book short and tight, but that also means that many issues fall by the wayside. The book’s use of folklore, ecocriticism and similar ideas is done almost in passing and this is where the comparison to Lessing comes full circle to me: because even in Lessing’s less accomplished books, hounded by her sometimes rickety style, there’s something at stake beyond plot and literary games. I think Schweblin doesn’t quite push through to the other side, and for a book with so many complicated ideas and possibilities, being merely entertaining and terrifying seems like a minor accomplishment. That said: it is entertaining and it is terrifying and I recommend you don’t give this to parents with young children (much as you shouldn’t give The Fifth Child to a pregnant woman). I do recommend you read this.

By “paraphrasable” I didn’t mean bad. That needs to be repeated. There are books and writers who are getting a good amount of praise today (I’m looking at you, Blake Butler and Green Girl) where you feel that the writing is incidental, it is the final ingredient after ideas and ideology have already been poured into the novel. The writer just adds the words at the end to make it work but he doesn’t care about them particularly. That is not the case here. Schweblin’s descriptions are excellent, the structure is excellent and the words are well chosen and precise. Schweblin’s book is like one of those literary horror novels that occupy a distant region of your mind, making you think differently about reality. That’s what all good horror does, I think? It pushes you to reconsider whether some mapped areas of your reality are really as mapped and controlled as you think. House of Leaves was another book like that. Somewhere halfway through reading Fever Dream, I looked at my own hands with a kind of alienated creeped out feeling. Surely that’s an achievement. In a way, what you get here is the training of a good short story writer, too: everything coheres, and is written with a view towards the end of the story as your hair starts to stand on end. You can guess what happens from the first pages, and you’ll have guessed coreectly, but Schweblin isn’t writing a mystery, she is presenting a strange, maybe supernatural story, and invites you from the start to read it with a sense of dread. The first line is “They’re like worms,” and while said worms don’t end up being very important to the book, the early insistence of them contributes to our reading. What’s more, as we read the book we know that everything bad that will happen, has already happened and we’re part of a conversation explaining to one of the people involved in it being forced to remember what exactly happened. We follow along, involved in the story, trying to see what’s important, and then suddenly when things get irreversibly bad it’s like a chute opens and we fall to the end of the story. Whatever issues you may have with other parts of the execution, this structure works exceptionally well and you don’t usually find this in literary fiction. Literary fiction does genre extremely badly – despite the literally formulaic qualities of the latter, literary thrillers, science fiction, or horror tend to not be as involving as their genre siblings. Schweblin can take it up with the best of them, and yet write in a careful, measured, often subtle way.

I have skirted around plot details for a reason, but I would like to mention the importance of pain in the story and how it works in the narrative structure of the book. I’ve recently read Elaine Scarry’s amazing The Body in Pain, and there is this chapter in the second half about the pain and imagination. Basically, Scarry explains that pain has no object. Pain just is, whereas imagination is all about the object, and has no corresponding state, really. Imagination is wholly dependent on context and the object that is imagined, the object itself determines the shape of the imagination, whereas pain is just an overwhelming state. Incidentally, Scarry is only talking about physical pain, yet her descriptions of it also fit my personal experience of depression and the experience of others I have read about. An overwhelming state of emotional pain, for which sometimes there is only one reprieve. Well, then again, maybe not. Back to Scarry and Schweblin. So one important factor here is that Schweblin toys with the limits of how we define humanity. The change someone can undergo as they suffer through intense pain is seen in the book as evidence of a swap of, what? Souls? Essences? There’s also the incredulousness of the mind when faced with exceptional pain, the tendency to sometimes catch up with it after a while that I think is reflected in the book. Mostly, I think what it is, is it tries to offer an illness that is so intense and fast in its effect, that it comes as close to an experience of pure pain as you can get. There are, I will say, queasy feelings reading this. One wonders whether Schweblin herself has ever felt truly exceptional physical pain. I have not, and there is a certain nonchalance at dealing with the physical aspects of the whole ordeal that make me wonder about Schweblin. With Lessing, to get back to the first paragraph, and whatever her failings as a writer, there’s always a sense of the writer dealing with physical and class issues in a responsible way. I’m not entirely sure about Schweblin. At the same time, the way her novel deals with the other half of Elaine Scarry’s equation, the imagination, is so deft that it’s hard to hold on to my misgivings. The book is in the form of an interrogation of sorts. A boy named David forces a woman named Amanda, who is probably dying, how she came to be where she is. She doesn’t quite remember, but in a sense Schweblin leads us into a great gothic mansion of Amanda’s mind, as we walk down, well not memory lane, more like memory hallway. Schweblin blurs the lines between memory and imagination, and as Amanda, who doesn’t currently feel pain, imagines the pain she felt, it warps the simple narrative of memory too.

There are many topics I haven’t talked about that Schweblin engages fully and other topics she alludes to. One topic is motherhood, the anxieties of modern motherhood. Amanda has something she calls “rescue distance” – a context dependent need to be close enough to her daughter to rescue her. This is a central term in the book, as evidenced by the fact that the novel was originally published in 2014 in Spanish under the title Distancia de Rescate. When the environment feels safe, that distance can be very great when there’s a threat, even inches may be too far. Much of how she explains it reminds us of helicopter parenting, maybe, but Schweblin carefully reaches into that sense of security and upends it: the catastrophe in the book happens with the daughter inches away and Amanda’s “rescue distance” alarm not raised at all. It’s a sense of evil lurking in the very ground – and Schweblin makes it an ecology issue, by connecting it to some unnamed barrels with some unnamed fluids. Some of the symptoms line up with radiation poisoning, and Argentina. Schweblin’s native country, has had a water contamination scandal in 2005, and Germany, Schweblin’s current country of residence, has a near-obsessive debate about nuclear waste all year round, so that could be the case. But with all the lovely possibilities we have of storing poison underground, God knows what it is. This uncertainty bothers me, to be honest. It’s not like Schweblin went down the path of Vandermeer who in his recent novels fully explores what Timothy Morton calls “dark ecology” (drop everything now and buy/read Morton’s book!). When I read the barrels (with the interlocutor suddenly saying “This is the important moment!”), I was let down. Maybe because books like Massimo Carlotto’s Sardinian investigative mystery Perdas de Fogu sharpened my sense of what’s possible and maybe necessary to say in fiction. Introducing the ecological element like this, as a trope, not as a reference to real barrels rotting away somewhere in the Argentinian countryside somehow seems worse than offering no such explanation but keeping it open. And here is where I mention Doris Lessing one final time. Despite her shortcomings as a writer, Lessing was a great writer, because of her sense of responsibility. Schweblin’s Fever Dream is a very very good novel, clever, but written with the depth and understanding of a real storyteller.  But it very clearly is not great, and I don’t know whether the writer will develop in that direction. This seems like a long short story, and I don’t know whether Schweblin’s ambitions will carry her beyond this (and I also don’t know how much of this book is McDowell’s invention), but I am genuinely excited to find out. This is one of the best books I read all year.

[I have elaborated on the ecological issue in this addendum here]

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6 thoughts on “Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream

  1. Lovely review, as usual. I remember reading somewhere that Fever Dream was originally conceived as a short story and was extended later at the editor/publisher’s suggestion.

    • 1) Thank you and 2) Interesting. That’s quite impressive, given how cohesive the whole text is.

  2. Your review has really helped me clarify my own thoughts on the novel, in particular the thrill of the reading experience versus what you take from it. (Interesting comments on Lessing as well – I hadn’t considered The Fifth Child as a comparison point).

  3. Hi. Great review, thank you. I bought this book last week and have been unsure whether to add it to the endless of pile of to-read-which-never-is, or if I should get cracking. Now I have a better idea, and so I will!

    • Thank you. I’m currently reading another book translated by Dowell, Mariana Enriquez’s “Things we Lost in the Fire” and it’s also fantastic. There must be something in the water in Argentina. Apart from poisonous pesticides, I mean.

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