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The Cute Little Devices Are Watching You


LITTLE EYES
By Samanta Schweblin

In a 1983 interview, Sting complained that the Police’s hit “Every Breath You Take” had been woefully misinterpreted. The song is about obsessive love: “You belong to me,” he croons over a lugubrious, pulsing, comfortingly familiar G-major chord progression. “I’ll be watching you.” Fans seemed to understand the song as a romantic anthem. But “I think it’s a nasty little song, really rather evil,” Sting said. “It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.”

A teenager at the time, I read these words with grim satisfaction, disdaining the fools who read tender devotion in those disturbing lyrics. Weren’t they paying attention? The song’s protagonist wasn’t a lover; he was a creep.

It was only while reading Samanta Schweblin’s dark, quick, strangely joyful new novel, “Little Eyes,” that I realized my feelings about the song had changed — or, rather, my feelings about its fans. I think people knew exactly what they were slow-dancing to in 1983; Sting and I were the ones doing the misinterpreting. Our relationship to surveillance is more complicated than we imagine. We accept it, ignore it, forget that it’s happening. Sometimes we desire it. Sometimes we mistake it for love.

[Read our Q. and A. with Samanta Schweblin]

In “Little Eyes,” surveillance takes the form of a device called the kentuki, a toylike, mechanical pet, available for $279 in 12 varieties fashioned after the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Consider it half Furby, half Tamagotchi, an adorable automaton that requires attention — but then add Chatroulette to the mix. Each kentuki has two users: the keeper, who owns the toy, and the dweller, a volunteer assigned at random who controls it remotely, via software interface, from elsewhere in the world. The dweller can see and hear everything around the kentuki but can issue no sound other than a wordless cry. The keeper isn’t told the identity of the dweller; owning a kentuki is like inviting a mute stranger to live in your home.

“Little Eyes” is a novel-in-stories about these keepers and dwellers — a brisk survey of 21st-century life as seen through the inscrutable camera eyes of a plausible and revealing consumer fad. The novel charts the rise and fall of the kentuki over a dozen separate narratives, each focusing on a keeper or dweller, which Schweblin renders in a nimble third-person limited.

[ Read an excerpt from “Little Eyes.” ]

I cannot describe the thrill that ran through me when I realized what the premise of this book was. Of course the idea is timely — the kentuki can stand neatly in for any number of our era’s pitfalls, vanities, delusions and ills — and lends itself well to takes about consumerism, privacy and the porousness of boundaries in the age of social media. But what amazes me is how studiously Schweblin shuns this low-hanging fruit, pushing the book’s thematic content into the background and spotlighting instead the intensity and specificity of her characters’ inner lives. I cannot remember a book so efficient in establishing character and propelling narrative; there’s material for a hundred novels in these deft, rich 242 pages.

Among the mini-novels in “Little Eyes” is the story of Marvin, an Antiguan child from a family of means, who dwells inside a dragon kentuki trapped behind a shop window somewhere in the frozen north. Surrounded by vacuum cleaners, he gazes longingly into the hills and imagines touching snow for the first time. His kentuki’s odyssey takes Marvin first to the shop floor, then to the streets; eventually he is liberated by activists and upgraded by a hacker.

In another story, Alina is the disaffected girlfriend of an arrogant, philandering artist, whom she has accompanied on a creative retreat to Oaxaca; her kentuki, a crow, is a daily companion to her self-discovery and the dissolution of her relationship. She becomes convinced that her dweller is a pervert and tries to torture him through the crow’s body, abusing and disfiguring it, with unforeseeable consequences.

Grigor, in Croatia, deals on the kentuki gray market, trafficking dwelling-certified tablet computers to buyers in search of specific kinds of keepers. The moral consequences of his work become clear only when he stumbles upon a different kind of trafficker.

Interspersed among the longer stories, each of which comprises several chapters, are one-shot vignettes: suicidal rabbits at a Spanish nursing home, a bear that blackmails American teenagers, a panda facilitating an emotional affair in China, a Canadian crow that terrorizes a couple of toddlers. Each story unveils a new implication of the technology, new ways for human beings to love and hurt themselves and others. Schweblin has allowed herself a clever plot device: The kentuki has only a day or two of battery life before it needs a three-hour charge, and if it runs out, its connection to the dweller is cut off forever. This serves as a source of suspense, engendering races against time, tragic accidents, nail-biting imprisonments.

The writing, ably translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, is superb, fully living up to the promise of Schweblin’s stunning previous novel, “Fever Dream”; the sentences snap like a flag in a gale, especially when deployed to evoke small, vivid details. When Grigor is on the brink of falling in love with his assistant, Schweblin writes: “He was frightened by how shy his voice sounded, and here in his own room. Everything smelled good, everything was in order.” A young man who thinks he’s paying a routine visit to an uncle in Buenos Aires suddenly understands that the old man is about to die, and sits in stunned silence, “still smelling the airplane food on his own body.”

The loveliest chapter in the book is probably its shortest, chronicling the brief life of a kentuki exuberantly destroyed by a concert crowd in Hong Kong: “This was more than he’d dreamed of. He wanted to stay there forever, with all those faces that took turns waiting for him and flinging him up again.” The story pulls back to reveal its dweller, a nurse in war-torn Sierra Leone: “His hand, rough, still trembled above the mouse.”

Near the book’s end, Alina is permitted to question the novel’s premise in a private metafictional rant. “What was the whole stupid idea of the kentukis about?” she asks herself. “What were all those people doing rolling around on other people’s floors, watching how the other half of humanity brushed their teeth?” She bemoans the lack of murder, mayhem, catastrophe channeled through the toys; instead, their stories are “so desperately human and quotidian.”

“Little Eyes” posits that, when it comes to human enterprise and error, the quotidian and the dramatic are never very far apart; the smallest act might be of the greatest consequence. The book itself embodies this philosophy perfectly: a slim volume as expansive and ambitious as an epic.

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