I’m still not sure what kind of book Fever Dream is – part fable, part ecocriticism, all panic. Schweblin has a singular talent for evoking the sensation of fear rather than working to scare the reader with gore or shock. But do not mistake me: this is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. Never before has a book made me feel as if it was watching me.
Schweblin has already established herself in both her native Argentina and the United States as a writer-to-watch with her innovative, fantastic short stories, and the reviews for Fever Dream excited me – Constance Grady at Vox called it “unsettling.” Jia Tolentino at The New Yorker said it was a “sick thrill.” Most advised it should be read in one sitting. I read it in three hours. About halfway through, I reopened reviews of the book on my Kindle in order to make sure it was, in fact, a real book, and not just something that was happening to me. After finishing, I slept with the lights on.
While the plots of all great novels are in the service of a larger idea, it’s particularly hard to talk about the plot of Fever Dream because it is so secondary to the intuitions of the book. The setup is incredibly still – almost motionless – and reveals itself slowly. A woman is in a bed and she cannot see well, though we cannot tell if this is because her eyes are failing or because the room itself is in darkness. A boy is whispering into her ear – questions, prompts. He opens by saying to her They’re like worms. He already has the answers but he is making her work through a story – one that they share – to find them herself.
We soon find out his name is David and hers is Amanda, and that he is the child of her friend Carla. Carla and Amanda both have summer homes in a remote, bucolic village. Amanda also has a child, Nina, but Nina and Carla only appear in the book within the framework of David and Amanda’s conversation.
In the story that David is extracting from Amanda, she says he had once been fatally poisoned by a substance in the local water and, in order to save him, his mother Carla took him to the “woman in the green house” who promised to split his soul. This “migration,” the woman tells Carla, “will have its consequences.” David will not be the same anymore.
The woman is right. Though David survives the migration, he is deeply altered.
“She called you a monster,” Amanda tells David in the darkness. “It must be very sad to be whatever it is you are now, and on top of that your mother calls you a monster.”
“You’re confused,” David says into Amanda’s ear. “And that’s not good for this story. I’m a normal boy.”
Schweblin slowly unspools the unsettling tale from there, once the reader understands the state David is in but must still discern what has happened to Nina, to Carla, and what is happening to Amanda as we read. The writing is as carefully plotted as it is wild, striking in that it relies on very simple language to do its complicated work. The poison is never called poison, but is a “wetness.” Amanda keeps saying the room is “dark,” which is enough. The space between mother and child – and the panic of that space expanding – is called “the rescue distance.”
I was not surprised to see that Fever Dream was translated by Megan McDowell. She has long been the translator of choice for Alejandro Zambra, whose work is similar to Schweblin’s in that they are both concise in length but endless in depth. McDowell’s restrained translations muscle the glut of meaning into the tight spaces of these works. And, in the case of Fever Dream, her ability to maintain the simplicity while still choosing terms that feel disorienting was key to the book’s sensation of terror. This book takes place in a chasm, in the uncontrollable abyss of confronting how little control we have over mortality – our own, and our children’s.
Yes, Fever Dream is terrifying. One image of the skin on the fingertips of nurses has returned to me daily. But the “sick thrill” that Tolentino described is not a cheap one. The unsatisfiable desire to protect one’s child at any cost, and the very real dangers posed to us daily by environmental degradation and those who lie to us about those dangers are very real. This book falls into a long line of fantastical literature whose hyperreality is perhaps just behind the curtain we have chosen not to pull back.
By Samantha Schweblin
Translation by Megan McDowell
Riverhead books, 2017
Jessica Smith’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waxwing, cream city Review, Sixth Finch, Phantom Books, Lumina, and other journals. She received her MFA from The New School and is currently pursuing at PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University, where she was the 2016 recipient of the Warren S. Walker Prize and is a co-founder of the LHUCA Literary Series.