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.

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Werner Hamacher (1948 – 2017)

I can’t believe how long it had taken me to get around to reading Werner Hamacher’s work. No, I suppose that’s the wrong expression. Until last year, to my great embarrassment and shame, I hadn’t actively heard of him despite having come across his name here and there.

My interest in Hamacher is, in part, due to some personal preoccupation with a specific kind of thinking. I’ve always been fascinated by – and working on (though unpublished)- the connection between the various ideas about close reading coming from the German tradition and the French deconstruction, so often maligned by critics, with Derrida and De Man as their most notable examples. I have always felt there tro be a gap in serious scholarship. Only last year have I encountered the work of Werner Hamacher who has died this week. Hamacher work exactly in the area that I am so interested in.

Werner Hamacher hasn’t written much in terms of books (the full list of publications is quite long though). A forthcoming publication next year will be only the third major monograph to appear in German. The previous one was Premises. Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan, which appeared in English in 1996 and in German in 1998 (though unlike Hannah Arendt, who also published in English first, he didn’t write the English version himself). Hamacher wasn’t, first and foremost, a writer – instead, by all accounts, he was primarily a passionate thinker and speaker who developed his ideas in his talks for which he brought only rough outlines. I have always preferred teachers who allowed me to see them think through a text or a problem rather than teachers who turned up with a finished product that merely needed to be presented.

Never having heard Werner Hamacher teach, I only have his book, in which he proves himself to be a refulgent thinker and writer. His work on Kant, Kleist, Celan and others is both insightful and is carried, at the same time, by a broad talent for synthesis. In Hamacher’s thinking, several traditions connect in sometimes startling and surprising ways. He opend clear, new paths to texts we already know very well. Hamacher’s is that rare and lovely brilliance – the kind you admire even as you may occasionally disagree – and he brought to bear his immense mind on just this gap, building a theory of how to understand not just the world – language. At a time when the subject has slowly returned to criticism, Hamacher’s careful work on examining the way language and understanding interact with each other seems particularly timely.

Hamacher, whose work has appeared in English translation, and who has taught in Stanford, New York and other American universities, has had a significant impact even on people who have not read him or his students. He was the force behind (and series editor of) Stanford UP’s Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, which is maybe best known for being the main publisher of Agamben’s work in English. He himself translated poetry (Jorie Graham, for example) and literary criticism (De Man, Lacan) into German.

For many of us, he was the kind of philosopher whose name is not as well known as it could be, but whose impact has been felt for a while. Or maybe it’s just me – shamefully unread as I am. I hadn’t seriously considered Hamacher’s work until last year and hadn’t directly engaged with it until this year – so this loss to me is the sudden loss of a great writer who I was looking forward to discovering in depth in the months and years to come. Ah, I hardly knew ye!

But from this former students on Facebook another Hamacher emerges: a teacher, kind mentor and friend. His bridge-building exceeded his work as editor and translator, and reading the personal tributes has been lovely and moving. I’m sure we will grapple with his death in the next few years. For now, all we have is the texts – and his greatest legacy: his thinking and his students. Personally, I urge you to read Premises, which I have been carrying around in my bag for months now, the book is an enormous achievement.

Plots of stories I’ve written or rewritten in the past year: a poem

A church burns, someone dies.
Sentient poop takes over, no lies.
A man with a prehensile tail
In love with a whale
becomes a refugee and then cries.

A flower blooms, a woman is sad.
A trip to Macedonia, a woman is mad.
A science fiction story
about poets and glory
someone dies, someone cries, and someone is glad.

I also have some drafts about suicide,
those stories never turn out quite right.
They live on
unlovèd spawn
on this laptop, offline. Good night.

(I am not sorry)

Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes

Campbell, Sophie (2017), Shadoweyes, Iron Circus Comics
ISBN 978-0989020725

Sophie Campbell is one of my favorite people in comics. She’s been publishing comics for a long time now, sometimes as artist and writer, sometimes “just” as artist. It’s been a while since new work written by her has appeared in print: that’s all the more reason to celebrate Iron Circus Comics’s new reprint of her Shadoweyes comic book, originally published by Slave Labor Graphics in 2010. Trust me: you want to read this. Sophie Campbell’s art is gorgeous, the story and ideas are cohesive, moving and complex. If you are tired of the usual stories about vigilantism and superheroes, you might like this one. Campbell best and most well known work is the sharp sequence of graphic novels called Wet Moon, of which 6 volumes have appeared so far, and in some ways, Shadoweyes is its polar opposite: Wet Moon is conscientiously realist – offering a story about real lives in a way that isn’t usually presented in comics. Campbell’s characters are queer, of color – and colorful, struggling with money, sexuality, love and other issues, with a palpable physicality that similar books, like Terry Moore’s classic Strangers in Paradise, lack. In fact, if you follow Campbell’s work, the topic of physicality, of change, is tied into her examination and interrogation of feminity. Shadoweyes reads like an early attempt as synthesizing all of her themes in one powerful image: of the young vigilante who turns into a kind of alien monster, without losing any of her humanity. It’s about the inevitability of some physical change and about the way we deal with it. I’ll be honest though: the main reason you should read this is because Campbell is an amazing, gorgeous artist, and while her black and white work is great, her work in color is beyond description. This new edition of Shadoweyes is in full color, which the original wasn’t. Coloring assistance is provided by Erin Watson, who does a great job.

Campbell’s art, particular when colored, is transformative. She is an artist who takes care of the little details: hair, clothes, smaller accessories are rendered with a focus that is unusual, because Campbell, I think, truly understands how dependent often people’s identities are on what we might call these little things. In her own books, her excellent writing may overshadow sometimes the enormous lifting her art does. There are two titles that appeared in the last 5 years that should change your mind on that: one are the two trades of Glory that appeared from 2012 to 2013. The writing on the book, by Joe Keatinge, is very good, though a bit rushed by the end (had the book not been canceled I think the latter half of the story might have fared better), but it is Sophie Campbell’s art that truly lifts this title to a higher level. Keatinge took a character invented by Rob Liefeld and turned her complex and humane, giving her a tragic, moving character arc. None of this would have mattered if not for Campbell’s approach to the main character. You can always recognize a panel drawn by Campbell within seconds, and many characters in the book are very Campbellian: soft shapes, big eyes, unique hair style. But Glory, the main character is not human, her physicality, as established by Liefeld, is the one of an overpowered superhero: but Liefeld drew her as a pin-up (click here for Liefeld’s Glory), her physical power implicit in the actions, not her physique. Campbell’s Glory’s power is evident in her size, her thick, muscular body. Glory is tall, muscular, yet also feminine, and her life and emotions are extremely carefully designed by Campbell. Glory is a warrior and so her body is drawn with ripples of scars – what’s more, the big, muscular female in comics is often de-sexualized. Not so with Campbell who created Glory to be fully rounded, the various possibilities of life reflected in the various aspects of her physical appearance. There is a physical change that Glory goes through, as the story develops, and all the changes flow from the same, unwavering sense of aesthetics that is the artistic mind of Sophie Campbell.

Now, Glory is gorgeous, but extremely bloody and brutal. Sophie Campbell’s next major collaboration, Jem and the Holograms is neither of those things. Like Glory, Jem is a reboot of older material, in this case an animated series about a rock band that has the power to transform into anything they want thanks to a supercomputer named Synergy that can create life-like holograms. Not every part of this story makes equal sense, but why would you dig deeper when the story on offer is fun? That’s all equally true for the comic book, written by Kelly Thompson, who has used this book to jump to a very active writing career in comics, with art by Campbell (and colors by M. Victoria Robado). It’s odd to me that Thompson is the breakout star of the book when the major advantage of the book is Campbell’s art. The animated series has Jem’s band be in a constant conflict with a rival band called The Misfits (no, not those Misfits) and Campbell creates a clear design for both bands that is both believable and realist in its use of clothing, hair and other accoutrements, and at the same time absolutely, gorgeously fantastic. In Jem and the Holograms, we find Glory’s flowing hair again, the long limbs, but this time they are woven around music. The conflicts here are personal rather than apocalyptic, but we follow everything with rapt attention because of the world Campbell has created. Some of the writing is weak, some of the plot could have been better managed, much of it moves from bullet point to bullet point with an almost mechanical abruptness, but I dare you to be bothered when the delivery method is this glowing yet sharp and precise art. It’s not even the story itself that’s at issue, after all, Campbell had a hand in it, it’s the smaller details of writing that left me underwhelmed, but the art, truly, makes up for everything. So why isn’t Campbell the breakout star with her own book right now rather than Thompson?

The reason may lie in Campbell’s vision that is one that exceeds simple narratives of physicality and identity. In her books, people are damaged or change and then they live with that change. Sometimes people are not who we (or they) thought they were, but they push through that, adapt, move on. There is no simple episodic ‘back to the start’ for Campbell. The zombie tale The Abandoned ends on a complicated note of betrayal and unknowable future, ending at the story’s messiest point, and similarly, the limb lost in Water Baby remains lost, and the trust between some of the book’s characters is damaged. We change, we move on, that’s a pattern that keeps recurring in Campbell’s books and that isn’t that common in comic books. Plus, as a trans artist, Campbell’s voice isn’t as easily amplified as that of other unique comic book writers of today like Brandon Graham, about whose developing universe I’ll write something one of these days, or Matt Fraction, say. I will talk about Wet Moon in more detail some other time, but the fact remains that it is a complicated, untidy book – the comics industry, for all the genre’s potential for undermining simple narratives, is often remarkably conservative. Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise was a revolution, simply for writing a plain story about regular female characters, dressed and behaving like regular female characters. Wet Moon, with it’s more physical queerness is a more difficult proposition. These days most (all?) work that Campbell publishes (I can’t figure out which trades of TMNT contain her art, regrettably) is pencilwork for other writers and I suspect she has become most well know for her work on Jem and the Holograms and Glory. To these people, I recommend Shadoweyes without reservation, because it’s spectacularly gorgeous, combining, in some ways, two kinds of art that Glory and Jem split into two different directions. But Shadoweyes is more: it is also an unbelievably well told story about identity. In some ways, Shadoweyes serves as a key for some of Campbell’s other work, as it connects, through its intersex character Kyisha, the way preternatural transformations, common in superheroes and monsters, are a metaphor for the way people born into wrong or conflicting bodies deal with their identity. That’s not a popular topic, and not an easy one, but you can even find it in books Campbell didn’t write, just drew. That’s because her art is transformative. You should read her work. Start with Shadoweyes. It is good. Then read everything else. I promise you will not regret it.

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#tddl: the winner is…

Today, in an unusually brief voting round, the winners of the four prizes plus the audience award were announced. If you feel you need to catch up with what’s happened in the past 3 days: I did a bit of daydrinking, I have a horrible sunburn from today’s Pride, my cat doesn’t like her new food, and, oh, yeah, three days of the Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur (TDDL). Here is my summary of Day One. Here is my summary of Day Two. Here is my summary of Day Three and if you’re completely lost as to what the hell is going on, here is my general post about the event. If you want, you can read all the texts here, though you should hurry, they won’t be online forever.

That said: only TWO of these texts are worth keeping around (though some of the lesser texts will become parts of novels and collections): the stories by John Wray and Jackie Thomae. They are not equally good, but both are complex and interesting on the page and are worth rereading. John Wray’s story in particular is excellent. It is by far the best piece of prose in this year’s competition. But, as I said in my commentary on Day One:

Based on the text alone, he should win the whole competition, easily, but with the insurrection of the small minds and literature gatekeepers, one never knows.

And indeed, they picked Ferdinand Schmalz to win the big prize. Schmalz is part of the German literature business, he gives off, as we say in German, the right smell (der richtige Stallgeruch). He is a playwright, he knows all of these critics, if not directly then by a degree of separation no higher than two. And his native language is German. Klaus Kastberger’s huffing and puffing about not getting enough respect from these foreigners on day one truly showed the way. Wray won second place almost unanimously, which almost read like an admittance of guilt by the jury, who was really pulling for an insider but couldn’t credibly have placed Wray worse than second.

Which also explains why Eckhart Nickel won third place. His text is not, by any honest measure, the third best text. At least Schmalz’s text-cum-performance was really something, almost flawless for what it was. Nickel’s story was well made, but uninteresting au fond. Nickels biggest advantage was the fact that he is German literature royalty, a founding member of the Popliteratur scene, some of whose members went on to become influential titans of German literature. He definitely has the right smell. I suggested yesterday he might have a chance at getting one of the awards, but that’s because a similar writer had won a third award before, and because this resentment towards upstarts and foreigners had been in the air since day one. The reactions to the (much better) texts by Jackie Thomae and Barbi Markovic were sad and an indictment of the jury.

As was the fact that it took until the fourth and last award for a woman to win something. The field is split 50/50 between men and women, and on my score board, the four best writers were also similarly split 50/50. In a way, we were lucky Gianna Molinari won that fourth award because on the shortlist was, inexplicably, the unspeakable text by Urs Mannhart. Mannhart and Nickel were both nominated by Michael Wiederstein, who is exactly the worst person you want to be influential in judging literature: well off, white, male, and unaware of his privilege to a pathological degree.

There was also an audience award, but I’m not discussing it. A bad text won it, but the real issue was that Barbi Marcovic’s text, one of the three or four best ones in the competition, was temporarily blocked from public voting due to ‘technical’ issues. Icing on a very unpleasant cake.

And you know what? I have a pile of books by writers from the competition, and am slowly sobering up, and next year, you know where I’ll be? Right here: in front of the livestream, following the next, 42nd, Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur. Did I get upset at this year’s awards? Sure. But you don’t stop watching basketball just because the fucking Warriors won the Finals like of fucking course they did.

Below is my list of posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol
#tddl, Day One: the Wraypocalypse
#tddl, Day Two: The Jurypocalypse
#tddl, Day Three: The Nopocalypse