In our new lives of social isolation, where video technology has erupted into a way of life for those with the means and privilege, Samanta Schweblin’s latest offering takes on an even more disquieting quality in her slightly futuristic world populated with toys inhabited by anonymous people, watching us in our most intimate spaces.
Already a master at a creating that slow-closing-in horror with her debut novel, Fever Dream, Schweblin’s new novel, Little Eyes, turns her unnerving style a notch tighter. The book opens in South Bend, with a clique of teenage girls playing cruel games with a garish plush panda bear on motorized wheels that seems to have a camera installed inside, but we have no idea what is until the toy reveals a consciousness within in that blackmails the girls.
This is the first introduction to the “kentuki,” and the cast of international characters, living anywhere from Mexico to France, who choose to be either a “dweller” or “keeper.” The kentuki has only one connection, which if it does not return to its charger and runs out of battery, will permanently die. We never discover the origin of the kentuki but as they begin to capture pan-pop-culture attention, we see them multiply through each of the book’s characters’ narratives. It is almost like an unknown tech company building an anonymous army whose true purpose will never be revealed, which is as unsettling as it sounds.
Though we are introduced to a variety of dwellers and keepers, Schweblin has a core cast of characters: Alina, a keeper, who is with her pseudo-romantic partner, Sven, at his art residency in Oaxaca; Emilia, an older woman in Peru, who dwells; young teenager, Marvin, in Antigua, also a dweller; Enzo, in Italy, the divorced father of his young son, Luca, who is given a kentuki by his mother and psychiatrist to keep at Enzo’s house; and Grigor in Zagreb, who after losing his job runs a kentuki scheme he dubs his “Fallback,” purchasing dweller codes and discovering who/where the kentuki keepers are, then reselling them on tablets.
Despite starting the book on a sinister note, we first meet our protagonists and learn their motivations in the most innocuous, gentle of ways. Alienated and at a loss of what to do, Alina buys her crow kentuki on a whim and sets very rigid boundaries right away—it is to be a pet and nothing else. She doesn’t allow it into the bathroom or other private places with her, and Sven seems somewhat intrigued by toy, but in the most distant of ways. Emilia is sent the dweller program by her son who works in a mysterious company in Hong Kong and she starts it up merely so she can converse reasonably intelligibly with her son about the gift before she sells it. Marvin, who just lost his mother, buys his dweller program as an escape, a way to see the world in safety. Luca despises his mole kentuki, but Enzo doesn’t mind it, letting it follow him throughout his days and help him garden.
Still, between these character arcs, Schweblin peppers the book with unnerving kentuki anecdotes—the head nurse of an elderly home in Spain helps bring in two kentukis for the residents and both of the toys’ users disconnect themselves, effectively committing suicide.
The nurse is startled, as it “had never crossed her mind that now, in addition to all the specifications you had to read if you bought a new appliance, you also had to think about whether you were worthy of having that object live with you or not.”
In another vignette, a mother of two girls buys them a kentuki after they beg for one, and then, right after it finishes charging, it violently attacks them.
The terror Schweblin invokes is all-too-common, especially for parents. How can we let invisible eyes into our sacred spaces and how can stop them once they’re there? Even if they have the best intentions, what harm can these unseen people cause? Emilia becomes so taken with her keeper, Eva, a young woman in Germany, she loses all sense of perspective and becomes overly protective when Eva takes up with a man who Emilia witnesses taking money from her wallet. When she texts him that she knows what he’s doing, she ends up taking daily calls with him, even though she can barely understand him.
Can you possibly see every side of the story when you only hold a few pages? Enzo is so comfortable letting his kentuki co-parent, as it follows his son’s every move when he’s in the house, that he is baffled when his wife suddenly demands for him to disconnect the creature. And Alina, after an unnerving encounter with her kentuki, envisions its dweller as an old man wanting with perversions and begins to torture it in a macabre game with Sven, who takes it to his studio during the day.
Schweblin unveils the hidden horror of our own imaginations and our private spaces deftly and chillingly. I can’t help but think of all the many horrifying stories of racist hacker attacks who bomb Zoom conference calls at a time when that is how many of us can attend classes, social events, and work meetings. The technology, which seemed such a savior not two months ago, now lays splayed like an open wound on the web.
Little Eyes is a brilliant, anxiety-provoking novel in a time where our anxiety, personally and societally, is at an all-time high. It is perhaps the novel we both need and deserve, and though it may take courage to pick it up, it is important we do so.
Little Eyes is available from Riverhead Books.
Angela Maria Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore by and for people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, was a 2018 Kirkus Fiction Prize judge, and has work forthcoming in Radar Poetry, Pilgrimage, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and Third Wednesday. You can find her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua or at duendedistrict.com.