LITTLE EYES, a new novel by Samanta Schweblin, reviewed by Shannon Nakai

In its eyecatching green-and-white cover and deceptively simple title, Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes offers a playful, incisive critique on what it means to follow a global trend in our increasingly connected, yet increasingly virtual culture. With the contemporary feel and multinarrative structure à la Tommy Orange or Marlon James, Schweblin invites us into workspaces, bedrooms, and midnight streets across multiple continents in a disturbing scenario. Her novel, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, recalls Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, as both cast a wary eye toward the advent of new technologies and a society overly influenced by them. But instead of parlor wall screens, Schweblin’s characters are swept up in the burgeoning trend of one-way cameras installed in plush animal robots (called kentukis). With the option to purchase a kentuki and be its keeper or a passcode and be its dweller, the characters force us to consider the cost to see and to be seen. It’s a resonant question for our 21st-century consumer-driven world. Kentukis are not far removed from the exhibitionism of social networking platforms, smartphones that offer tailored ads and services to meet even the most superfluous needs, and the farcical “intimacies” constructed online with strangers at the touch of a screen. How much do we truly know and understand humanity? Schweblin calls into question the blind trust we pour into our virtual connections, how much of our private lives we offer up to an unspecified audience, and how such constant broadcasting of the self inevitably changes and indicts us.

The novel opens with three pubescent girls baring their breasts to an anonymous viewer via a kentuki lens. The voyeurism is neither questioned nor yet explained, though in a series of exchanges the malice behind this relationship becomes apparent. Most of the relationships between keepers and dwellers begin in a heartfelt, curious, or even nonchalant manner. Lonely widowed empty nester Emilia in Lima receives a kentuki as a gift from her absent son. Initially skeptical of staring at a screen for hours watching a stranger, she eventually forms a protective maternal bond (albeit oneway) with her keeper, Eva, though complications arise when Eva’s boyfriend starts paying her attention. Emilia is not alone in attempting to bridge the divide; frustrated middle-aged Enzo in Umbertide finds unexpected emotional support in the kentuki his ex-wife has him purchase for their son. This newfound “friend,” whom he dubs “Mister,” serves as a surrogate caretaker for the child and welcome company in Enzo’s otherwise disenchanted world, until Enzo oversteps an unspoken boundary and invites Mister into his actual life.

While some keepers are content to treat their kentukis as pets, others seek companionship, escape, love, sex, or capitalization on a lucrative trend. Yet, at its core the kentuki culture is driven by consumerism in the guise of identity. Characters ponder the nature of being a keeper versus a dweller and selecting a product that best reflects their personalities (Alina in Oaxaca buys a crow kentuki that suits her sense of style, while Antinguan teenager Marvin hopes he is dwelling in a dragon kentuki as that would impress his friends). The ironic pursuit of individuality within the bandwagon phenomenon of trend-following echoes similar critiques in pop culture on the dehumanizing nature of capitalism. Echoing Chuck Palanhiuk’s Fight Club, the seemingly empowering act of acquisition proves to be a reductive one in which humans ultimately become products themselves:

And there was something exciting about that, the miraculous distraction of unfurling new cords from their neat coils, pulling the cellophane from two different kind of adapters, smelling the charger’s plastic.

For the watcher, the product they purchase is an experience, an opportunity to enter the theatre of human activity in another culture without leaving the convenience of their own homes, and the boundary between human and robot blurs. Emilia and other dwellers mimic animal sounds (as speaking directly is not an option) for the benefit of their keepers, like Alina, who regard their kentukis as pets. Such emotional distance is advantageous in an age requiring online safety etiquette:

Connecting with that other user, finding out who the other person was, also meant saying a lot about oneself. In the long run, the kentuki would always end up knowing more about her than she knew about it….

One interesting question Schweblin’s novel tackles is what we owe the people we invite into our lives. Marvin’s kentuki, confined to a shop window, is soon freed by a visionary hacker launching a movement for kentuki revolution:

But why would a kentuki want to be freed? Couldn’t they just disconnect, problem solved? Marvin knew that freedom in the kentuki world wasn’t the same as in the real world, though that didn’t really settle anything if you thought about how the kentuki world was also real. And he had to remind himself that he had longed for his own freedom without once thinking of disconnecting. There were even clubs like his in Guatemala, and they listed all kinds of abuses, things Marvin would never have thought of.

It is not long before dwellers are forced to witness traumatizing events, from deathbeds to violent factory farms and even human trafficking. Disconnecting is an option, but a costly one, as each one-time passcode costs hundreds of dollars. The same gamble goes for keepers. Alina is unsure what to make of her expensive impulse purchase, often forgetting it is even there and losing it when her artist boyfriend Sven absconds with it for hours each day in his studio. He never tells Alina how the kentuki is serving his exhibit, but she is putting on an exhibition of her own for the camera at her heels. Choosing not to be repelled by its curious interest in her, she responds with defiant, demented actions both with her body and against the kentuki’s. It’s a piece of plastic upon which she wreaks her twisted violence, and the anonymity of the dweller gradually desensitizes any inhibition that would otherwise curb her hostility. Schweblin asks us: without apparent consequences, what would we stoop to do? Exactly what is harnessing our innermost actions? Our face-to-face communities hold us accountable, but in our private spheres, where we close the door on our peers and audiences and settle before our screens, what unfiltered thoughts and behaviors come forth? Especially in volatile online spaces that amplify the constant din of opinions and arguments, where do we as consumers likewise blur the line between human and touchpad? The world of Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes eerily illuminates how the depths of depravity as both reader and characters, privy to constant voyeurism of the private lives of others, are horrified and convicted by what is revealed.

Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin. New York, New York: Riverhead Books, May 2021. 256 pages. $16.00, paper.

Shannon Nakai is a poet and book reviewer whose work has been featured in Cincinnati Review, Atlanta Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Literary Review, Cream City Review, Image, Gulf Stream, Midwest Review, and Sugared Water, among others. A Pushcart nominee and Fulbright scholar, she lives with her husband and son in Wichita, KS.

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