Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin tr. Megan McDowell (Riverhead, Jan. 2017) Reviewed by Ray Barker

Fever Dream
by Samanta Schweblin
tr. Megan McDowell
(Riverhead, Jan. 2017)

Reviewed by Ray Barker

The tautness and concision of the short unsettling novel Fever Dream is evident even from its cryptic opening sentence: They’re like worms.

These words are spoken to Amanda, a grown woman who is dying, by David, a child at her side in an anonymous hospital. The narrative is so stripped of identifying information—time, location, sentiment—that it feels, at moments, like a closet drama. David and Amanda’s dialogue forms and drives the narrative of this tense, dark domestic tale—equal parts fable and fantasy, dream and horrific yet elusive nightmare.

Their opening conversation, in interview format, continues, with David inquiring:

What kind of worms?
Like worms, all over.
It’s the boy who’s talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.
Worms in the body?
Yes, in the body.
Earthworms?
No, another kind of worms.
It’s dark and I can’t see. The sheets are rough, they bunch up under my body. I can’t move, but I’m talking.

Amanda’s interior thoughts appear occasionally, but the story is left to be recalled by these two.

It’s the worms,” David insists to Amanda, before framing the focus of Schweblin’s narrative: “You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.

In the absence of any authoritative narrator, three additional characters—Amanda’s daughter Nina, and David’s parents, Carla and Oscar—complete the skeletal cast.  Scenes form, then dissolve, as if with great discomfort. As in a literal fever dream, the constraints, rules and logic of reality are manipulated ignored, and irrelevant here. This is a license Schweblin takes seriously. She takes liberties with and completely dismisses traditional narrative forms to create a succinct, jarring story arc. Consider Schweblin’s style a new form of primitivism.

For example, virtually no identifiers are given to the speakers. Nor are there any dialogue tags; we simply see that David speaks in italics while Amanda speaks in plain text. Carla, the only other character taking prominent space in the text, is quoted by, and filtered through, Amanda. Nina and Oscar, too, are given to us secondhand as their actions are described respectively by Amanda, and Carla.

“At a remove” might be the single clearest way to describe the book in toto: even the physical descriptions of the characters are devoid of detail. We know, for example, that David is a young boy, while Nina is slightly younger. Aside from random details such as Carla’s predilection for silver bikini tops when tanning, the reader is left to imagine each of the characters’ appearances based on their words, apparent ages, and actions alone.

This minimalist tendency is a concerted one for Schweblin. “Sometimes only giving a part of a description helps the reader imagine the complete picture,” she declared in an interview with the short-story website The Short Form. She frames herself not as asserting narratorial authority, but as writing to fulfill a compact with her audience: “It’s like working in a team with the reader: think of the world and make the reader fill in the particulars. That’s the magic of literature.” And readers should keep this collaborative, alchemical process in mind while traversing the elusive and mysterious narrative plotlines of Fever Dream—a barren landscape refined, and reduced to the imperative.

The structure of the novel provides its own tension by its unique construction, as a narrative tug-of-war between its two dominant voices. Amanda is the dying patient in a hospital bed; David is at her side, guiding her. If David is a guide, he is an aggressive one, compelled to push Amanda through her first-person narrative. David is curious about the pivotal event—which we come to learn was a toxic chemical spill that tragically harmed both Amanda and Nina—though his motives are never clarified. However, he repeatedly insists on fast-forwarding to the “important” events of the story—Amanda’s seemingly harrowing experience—only to pause abruptly and zoom in on the details of what David clinically describes as “what we’re looking for”). As her own death is imminent throughout the novel, Amanda is helpless, almost a victim; her value to him (and in a way, to the reader) is only what she can recall. She may seem reticent when the truth is more that she can barely remember anything, even so, her weakened state renders both her and her memory unable to resist David’s forceful prompting.

It bears mentioning that Schweblin received a degree in film from the University of Buenos Aires, and in keeping with the vocabulary of film editing, Amanda visibly prefers slow motion, rewinding, and re-reviewing, following a frame-by-frame analysis, as if this process allows her to intellectually and emotionally examine the events in excruciating detail, as if this studied and focused critique will elicit comprehension. Amanda describes her experiences in concrete terms, as ostensibly “the story we need to understand.” And it is a story that requires understanding from another who is complicit in her experience as well, perhaps by association only: the reader.

David treats Amanda’s story as an investigation of sorts, combing through the details as if it were a crime scene to be deconstructed. Those worms mentioned on the first page are fully considered on the next:

It’s the worms. You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.
Why?
Because it’s important, it’s very important for us all.

Unfortunately, the significance of “the worms” is never fully revealed or explained. Are they literal worms, or symbolic of the toxic spill’s aftereffects? The novel’s its beguiling yet elusive nature is chief among its qualities, but even so, more elucidation and clarity in general might lead to a greater impact on the reader.

Soon thereafter, David’s mother Carla begins to dominate the narrative space. As Amanda tells David a story of Carla’s—thereby presenting a curious story-within-a-story—we learn David is accidentally poisoned through drinking water in a nearby river. His fate was predicted by the death of a horse that was similarly infected prior to David’s accident. Carla describes the events:

Whatever the horse had drunk my David had drunk, too, and if the horse was dying then David didn’t have a chance. I knew it with utter clarity.

His infection is so severe he requires an immediate visit to a local doctor, a kind of shaman, who is “not a psychic,” but a “reader,” claims Carla, who heals through practicing non-traditional methods Carla continues her story to Amanda:

“David’s body couldn’t withstand the poisoning, that he would die, but that we could try a migration.”
“A migration?”
“If we could move David’s spirit to another body in time, then part of the poison would also go with him. Split into two bodies, there was the chance he could pull through.

And so through these supernatural means, his spirit is split into two parts: one half remains within him, the other placed into another child. Through this crude sorcery, he is able to survive, but is never truly the same person again. Carla says:

“He was mine. Not anymore.”
I look at her, confused.
“He doesn’t belong to me anymore.”

The complete details of this process and his survival, as in other passages of Fever Dream, however, forever remain beyond our—and Amanda’s—cognitive grasp. Impending and unknowable devastation, almost annihilation, hangs like a heavy weight overhead, like a noxious gas imbuing the air, and each plot turn becomes a slow, near-reveal that is as surprising as it is tragic.

But through more mysterious circumstances soon thereafter, both Amanda and her daughter are contaminated by an unidentifiable, toxic liquid stored in plastic barrels—a parallel to David’s prior poisoning. The scene plays out as relatively routine, though the catastrophic implications—the “danger and madness”—percolates beneath the surface. Amanda continues:

we get up from the grass . . . Nina looks at her clothes. She turns to look at her bottom,
her legs.
Why? What’s wrong?
“What’s wrong?” I ask her.
“I’m soaked,” she says, somewhat indignantly.
“Let’s see . . .” I take her hand and spin her around. With the color of her clothes I can’t tell how wet she is, but I touch her and yes, she’s wet.
“It’s dew,” I tell her. “It’ll dry while we’re walking.”
This is it. This is the moment.
It can’t be, David, this is really all there is.
That’s how it starts.
My god.

And soon thereafter in their exchanges further details are shared:

Nina looks at you.
Yes.
She knows this is not good.
But it’s dew. I still think it’s dew.

Amanda’s innocence remains, but the process of degradation has begun.

Just as Fever Dream unfolds mysteriously, so does Schweblin—despite receiving wide acclaim and numerous awards—seem to be equally mysterious to American readers. No stranger to the literary scene, she’s received recognition from the National Fund for the Arts and the Haroldo Conti National Competition for her first collection of stories to the Casa de la Américas for her second, Pájaros en la boca, as well as Mexico’s FONCA grant and the Juan Rulfo Story Prize.  However, aside from a variety of short stories appearing predominantly online, much of her work remains in her native language, and it seems bewildering that Fever Dream should be Schweblin’s first grand outing in English translation.

Schweblin has both become estranged from the Latin-American mainstream by moving to Berlin and remained irrevocably bound to her linguistic tradition by continuing to write in Spanish, and perhaps it is due to this strange dichotomy that she has proven herself to be the most daring and extraordinary entrant in the current wave of Latin American work to be translated. Her friendship with such writers as Valeria Luiselli, Álvaro Enrigue, Juan Gabriel Vázquez, Andrés Neuman, and Guadalupe Nettel suggests that she is contributing to a new current within Spanish-language literature, a current that offers its curious and open-minded readers unexpected rewards.

And, indeed, Megan McDowell’s superlative translation raises the question: Why isn’t more work of this kind, work by Latin American authors that’s eye-opening and mind-rattling, available in English? Regardless of the language it’s read in, there is no arguing that, with Fever Dream, Schweblin has created literature that is new: literature that places an overwhelming trust and faith in the reader to complete the emotionally harrowing picture she proposes.  And Schweblin’s intentionally constrained narrative forces us to engage attentively with Amanda, David, Carla, and (to a lesser degree) Nina’s responses to the events, and to construct our own responses as well.

What should we make of the cumulative pilings of dread and its cousin, death, on display here? Buried somewhere within the layers of horror is a maternal message worth finding. Fever Dream returns again and again to the parental, and more specifically motherly responsibilities required today. The concept of “rescue distance,” that is, the appropriate and comfortable distance between parent and child, is defined, but always changing. The responsibilities of the relationship between mother and daughter is described by Amanda throughout as a rope, “tied to my stomach from outside. It pulls tight,” “pulls harder . . . tightens around my stomach. It’s going to slice my stomach in two.” This split is a very real obstacle to her desire to remain whole. The rope, she says, “can’t break. Nina is my daughter. But yes, my God, it’s broken.” The tether from mother to daughter itself becomes a hazard to both of them; even with zero “rescue distance,” they are in danger.

The obligations and domestic duties that remain even in a threatening, at times horrible world are visible beneath the many layers of storytelling. Viewed in close detail, Schweblin informs us that humans (“all of us,” as David says), and most importantly children, are exceptionally vulnerable in this sometimes hostile, ambivalent world. In the twenty-first century, Schweblin seems to indicate the threat of environmental catastrophe is even more real and impending, that doom and calamity come in all stripes. The final passage in the novel indicates the broad implications of the chemical disaster, and its chilling devastation, as Amanda describes her husband’s attempt at escaping the spill and its aftermath:

He doesn’t notice that the return trip has grown slower and slower. That there are too many cars, cars and more cars covering every asphalt nerve. He doesn’t see the important thing: the rope finally slack, like a lit fuse, somewhere; the motionless scourge about to erupt.

This ominous, open-ended promise exemplifies how we are often left without clear protection or safe harbor. One of our only remaining accessible defenses, Schweblin ultimately implies, is our ability to tell stories, and to be heard by a receptive audience.

As long as our ability to tell, hear, and share stories remains intact and there is someone there to listen and validate our experiences, humanity, and our collective humanity—that is, our humaneness, our benevolence—survives another day.

“This is not important,” David would certainly state.

That may be true, but in uncertain times, this is all we have.

 

Ray Barker is the Chief Archivist/Librarian at Glenstone Museum, a modern art museum in Potomac, Maryland. His work has previously appeared in Review Revue, and The Collagist. He lives with his wife and daughter in Washington, DC.