Samanta Schweblin’s Experiments in Agency

side by side series of the cover of Little Eyes

Samanta Schweblin’s newest novel, Little Eyes, translated from the Spanish by the excellent Megan McDowell and recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a bit like a long Black Mirror episode. The cursed new technology comes in the form of cute, animatronic toys called “kentukis” (the word is uncapitalized throughout the book in an interesting and unexplained disavowal of brand) that go from mysterious knick-knacks on a hardware store shelf to global phenomenon over the course of the book. The fevered desire for these toys won’t need any explanation for ’90s kids who still remember the brief, universal lust for a Furby around the millennium. But kentukis are complicated—they can move, for one, and they house a human mind rather than a computer chip. Kentukis are sold in two parts to two people: a “keeper,” who buys the kentuki itself, and a “dweller,” who watches through little cameras in the eyes of the kentuki, and controls its movements from a tablet, like a drone. The catch is that the connection between dweller and keeper is random and permanent—there is no way of knowing who in the world you’ll be connected to. And a kentuki can’t make a sound beyond an animal squeak, so it can be difficult for a keeper to get a sense of who, exactly, is wandering around their home.

The chapters of Little Eyes bounce between houses and apartments around the world—from Lima to Erfurt to Hong Kong and back again. We meet a dizzying array of characters, keepers and dwellers both. Some, we meet only once—like a single mother in Vancouver who buys a kentuki at the insistence of her daughters, only to smash it to smithereens as soon as it wakes up and immediately attacks them. Other characters return and form larger arcs. Because of this, Little Eyes has the feel of an anthology or a linked collection. The glue that binds is the kentukis—but there is a thematic adhesive, too. Schweblin’s voyeuristic robots and continuously shifting perspective guides us through an extended meditation on personal agency that is both bleeding edge and timeless: when do we defend and when do we willfully forfeit our autonomy? How is it taken from us and how do we erase it from others?

Schweblin’s experiments in agency precipitate from an asymmetry of experience. The kentuki dweller-keeper relationship revolves around anonymity: the dweller sees their keeper’s most private spaces, while the keeper is totally blind (at least initially) to the identity of the person moving their kentuki. But that dweller advantage has a few serious limitations. As one keeper character muses, the dweller “wanted her questions, wanted a way to communicate, he wanted Alina to listen to what he had to say and for her to ‘service’ him. But Alina wasn’t going to give in. Without a way of communicating, the kentuki was relegated to the simple function of a pet, and Alina was determined not to cross that line.” Of course, asymmetry is nothing new to human relationships. Alina is a recurring character, the girlfriend of an artist at a residency in Oaxaca. She has come along with her boyfriend, Sven, expecting to feel closer to Sven’s work, and to him. In fact, she ends up spending almost all of her time alone. She’s ignored by Sven, and ruminates on the essential differences between their degrees of self-determination: “If Sven knew all, if the artiste was a committed laborer and every second of his time was another step toward an irrevocable destiny, then she was exactly the opposite . . . The un-artiste . . . . Her body placed itself in the in-between, protecting her from the risk of ever one day achieving something.” Alina finds a parallel relationship with the kentuki, naturally, with consequences that I’ll come back to in a moment.

But first, a little more on the connection between communication and agency. Schweblin makes us acknowledge that connection from the very beginning. The first chapter of Little Eyes is stand-alone. In it, three teenage girls play with a panda-shaped kentuki, subjecting it to performances. They flash the kentuki, they put a bucket over its head and fake an orgasm, and finally they show it an unflattering video of a classmate. The kentuki seems utterly will-less until they ask it to help them blackmail the classmate. The girls struggle to find a way of connecting with the dweller to receive their cut of the blackmail money. One of the trio has the idea of giving the kentuki a Ouija board to spell out messages, which the anonymous dweller immediately uses to harass them. Just having the option of communicating can exert a kind of power. This is true whether or not we choose to use it. In another sequence, one keeper is frustrated by his kentuki dweller’s refusal to get in touch, even after he shares his phone number. The dweller, for reasons that remain a mystery until the very end, chooses to remain a silent actor in his keeper’s life, and in so doing holds a greater power in the relationship than if the keeper had not tried to establish a communicative bond. Our desire to play with this form of agency, to grant and withhold it on one side, and to accept or refuse on the other, is central to the dramas of Little Eyes.

Schweblin set herself up with a tricky problem: in order to really feel her asymmetries from both sides, we need to be constantly reminded of the agency of the kentuckis, and then ignore what we’ve learned. The structure of Little Eyes manages this perfectly with its chapters that alternate from keeper perspective to dweller. Schweblin is a master of form matched with function and, like her 2014 novel Fever Dream before it, the structure of Little Eyes is mimetic. The leaping chapters mimic turning on a kentuki—from the dweller’s side—and not knowing whose house you are in. Readers who remember Chatroulette and its cultural arc will also find an echo in the progression of Little Eyes. Fans of Schweblin know that she can get precipitously dark, and this book is no exception. What begins with charm, an attraction to the new world of the kentukis and the new experiences they might offer, ends in a sick feeling that it is impossible for us to escape the holes that we dig for ourselves and each other. The excitement of starting a new chapter, and meeting a new person, sours into deep dread for what we’ll find. Being invited into the most intimate spaces of another human means being party to their most personal experience of and dangerous experiments in agency.

Most of us equate physical freedom with agency, and certainly physical limitations can affect us more than almost anything. But Schweblin is careful to point out that mobility isn’t sufficient for true freedom. Late in the book, we find ourselves in the middle of a crime drama. One pair of kentuki dwellers, a team in Zagreb trying to run a grey market service reselling kentuki connections, discover a kidnapped girl in a small town in Brazil. They recognize their responsibility to free her and, after the team out-maneuvers the corrupt police—on their end and the girl’s—she is reunited with her mother at her home. But while they celebrate, moving their kentuki around the girl’s house, they make a horrifying discovery. They stumble on a meeting between the girl’s father and her kidnapper and realize that they have not guaranteed her permanent escape.

Schweblin’s dwellers are obviously trapped, being stuck behind their table screens without a way to speak, but many of Schweblin’s keepers also seem immobilized. Alina, the keeper in Oaxaca who is largely ignored by her cold and busy artiste boyfriend, finds herself largely keeping to their lonely residency apartment. She buys a kentuki to distract herself. It’s an impulse purchase, made with the sole purpose of feeling more willful, but what begins as a simple exertion of choice ends in the grotesque mutilation of her little crow kentuki. Initially, she does this because she begins to assume that the dweller controlling the crow is a voyeur, interested only in seeing her naked. But, because Schweblin has already established Alina’s willful dismissal of the toy as a pet, and the entitlement she feels to experiment in the privacy of her non-home, we begin to understand that Alina’s physical confinement has awakened a kind of destructive agency in her. Despite her protestations, she has become an “artiste,” in the sense of committing to a kind of project, and in taking step after step on her own “toward an irrevocable destiny.”

We often get a thrill out of asymmetrical experiences—sometimes that is the thrill of mystery and sometimes it’s the thrill of realizing our own power over others. As one dweller puts it, “Ultimately, people loved restrictions.” Schweblin knows it’s true. The whole thing sounds like a bondage metaphor when put that simply, but the implications go far beyond sex. We can love self-abnegation, and we can love to inflict limits on others, too. But restrictions get ugly fast when the asymmetry of our agency goes beyond the superficial. Sometimes we find too late that the fetters we’d put on for fun are tighter than we’d thought, and inescapable.

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