Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (tr. Megan McDowell). Riverhead Books. $25.00, 192pp.
Despite its fervid storyline, Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream is the product of clear calculation and restraint. The narrative is tightly packed, the cast of characters narrow, and the logic addictive. From the first lines the reader enters into a murky alternate reality, pursuing that sublime moment of clarity that constantly eludes capture.
In fact, the book feels more like a protracted short story than a novel. This is unsurprising, given Schweblin’s immense talent for the short form. Before the 2014 publication of Distancia de rescate—Fever Dream’s original Spanish title—Schweblin published two short story collections, El núcleo del disturbio (2002) and Pájaros en la boca (2009), for which she won the Casas de las Américas Prize.
Through short stories, Schweblin established herself as a writer of the strange and eerie. While Granta featured her in its list of “The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” alongside Carlos Labbé, Alejandro Zambra, Andrés Neuman, and Carlos Yoshimito, her style is more closely attuned to that of Edgar Allan Poe, or perhaps more close to home, Julio Cortázar. Like them she is fascinated by the oftentimes disturbing and inexplicable forces at work in the world. In the titular story of Pájaros en la boca, parents discover, and proceed to agonize over, their daughter’s inexplicable urge to eat her pet birds—which she thrusts whole into her mouth and chews bloodily.
At the core of many of Schweblin’s stories is a morbid, hysterical portrayal of motherhood. In one, a couple struggling with fertility spends the night “hunting” some unnamed entity, and Schweblin’s refusal to give the thing a name, paired with the couple’s desperation, produces an unsettling aura. In another story a pregnant woman dreading her nearing delivery date goes to see a doctor who prescribes her pills that, month by month, reverse her pregnancy as her family looks on horrified.
Schweblin’s stories demonstrate her ability to make the reader feel viscerally manipulated, if not morally violated. And yet, while their brevity may at times intensify their effect, there is something fleeting about them. They disturb and manipulate the reader but they don’t haunt or linger in the mind like a nightmare. This is because we are never given enough time with her characters to see them as much more than half-empty vessels carrying out her hair-raising experiments.
With Fever Dream Schweblin seems determined to raise the stakes. The novel is fast-paced, unnerving, and constantly threatening to careen into full-blown horror. While still maintaining the satisfyingly claustrophobic concision that she perfected in her earlier fiction, Schweblin has more room to play with, more time to develop her characters, all while building the reader’s anticipation with layers upon layers of ambiguity.
The novel opens in medias res: a feverish conversation between our narrator and a boy. In a maneuver that feels cinematic, the characters are heard before they’re ever seen, and we are forced to fill in the gaps as we rush onward and grow accustomed to being—both literally and figuratively—in the dark. “They’re like worms.” “What kind of worms?” “Like worms, all over.”
We soon learn that our two principle characters are in a hospital. Amanda, our narrator, is suffering from some terrifying ailment, which she and the boy, David, describe as worms menacing her body. David is searching for some piece of information. “You have to be patient and wait,” David tells her. “And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.”
And just like that, we’re propelled into Amanda’s memory—or is it a fever dream?—as she describes the events that form the majority of the novel, with interruptions from David, who acts as our (and Amanda’s) guide, prodding her along, telling her to hurry, keep going, instructing her (and us) on which details are important and which are not. When Amanda asks, “Are these the important details?” she is told, “We’ll know the exact moment from a detail, you have to be observant.” David’s urgency forces us, too, to be observant, active participants in this frenzied race against time. The dizzying effect comes from not knowing what it is exactly that we are looking for.
In her memory or dream, Amanda and her young daughter, Nina, are vacationing in the countryside of San Isidro, Argentina, where they have rented a house. Amanda has befriended a local woman, another mother named Carla, who comes by to drink lemonade and sun by the pool. Schweblin immediately imbues the most prosaic acts with an ominous and growing trepidation. “There’s something like mutual fascination between us,” the hospital-bound Amanda tells David, “and also at times, brief moments of repulsion . . .” Before any real trouble manifests, we are aware that something is amiss. And even as we are told, by Carla, that her son David—apparently the same David in the hospital with Amanda—is no longer the same son she had before a mysterious illness took possession of him, we are wary of trusting this erratic mother. Our unease is only heightened by Amanda, who throughout Carla’s story cannot help herself from repeatedly, ominously, glancing over at Nina, as if at any moment something or someone will snatch her little girl away.
This protective maternal instinct is central to the novel, and Schweblin plays expertly on our deep-rooted belief in hysterical women and neurotic mothers. When some of her husband’s horses started dying, Carla explains, she knew—how it’s not clear—that her infant David must be infected as well. Then Carla’s story veers into the mystical, as she explains that some voodoo-like magic has altered her son; even Amanda is taken aback by this obvious break with rational thought. At the same time, we discover a similarly irrational impulse in Amanda, who confesses, “I always imagine the worst-case scenario.” She is desperate to protect Nina from the dangers of the world, even though there is no ostensible threat.
As if measuring the narrative tension itself, Amanda refers intermittently to the “rescue distance,” a term she’s made up to determine “the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it.” Schweblin comes back to this term throughout the book, invoking it like a call of warning. (In fact, the original Spanish title, Distancia de rescate, means “rescue distance.”) And like a prophecy, Amanda’s unfounded fears are validated as we realize that something may in fact be very wrong with David, or Carla, or Amanda, or maybe even the whole town. Schweblin’s brilliance is in conflating cause and effect.
Whatever mystical powers may or may not be at work in the vacation town, it is clear that something fatal has contaminated its natural waterways. The scene of infant David, standing in the river behind his house, sucking water from his fingers while a dead bird lies a few feet off, has the same chilling effect as the stalking killer in a horror flick. A few intermittent details aside, the novel is otherwise devoid of the kind of cultural indicators that would place the novel’s events in a specific place. What is most frightening by the novel’s end is the looming sense that none of us is safe from the unfurling effects of industrial contamination.
This, of course, is not a your typical thriller. And Schweblin doesn’t deliver the expected climax that unfurls the tension she has so carefully built. When we finally reach the scene we have been waiting for, we are left with just as many questions as we had at the beginning, and several questions go unanswered, at least not to the reader’s satisfaction. Denied our moment of true catharsis, we are left to sift over the details, searching for closure in the scenes of a fever dream that is always rushing forward before we can make sense of things. This is where Schweblin succeeds where she did not before. She has told a story that is truly haunting and unsettling. It lingers.
Sarah Coolidge is the online editor for the Center for the Art of Translation. Her writing on photography and literature has been featured in The Quarterly Conversation, the Zyzzyva blog, and Zócalo Public Square.
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