Little Eyes was published on May 5th, 2020.
Content Warning: Animal abuse, kidnapping, sexual references and language.
They’ve infiltrated homes in Hong Kong, shops in Vancouver, the streets in Sierra Leone, town squares in Oaxaca, schools in Tel Aviv, bedrooms in Indiana. They’re everywhere. They’re here. They’re us. They’re not pets, or ghosts, or robots. They’re real people, but how can a person living in Berlin walk freely through the living room of someone in Sydney? How can someone in Bangkok have breakfast with your children in Buenos Aires, without your knowing? Especially when these people are completely anonymous, unknown, unfindable.
The characters in Samanta Schweblin’s brilliant new novel, Little Eyes, reveal the beauty of connection between far-flung souls—but yet they also expose the ugly side of our increasingly linked world. Trusting strangers can lead to unexpected love, playful encounters, and marvelous adventure, but what happens when it can also pave the way for unimaginable terror? This is a story that is already happening; it’s familiar and unsettling because it’s our present and we’re living it, we just don’t know it yet. In this prophecy of a story, Schweblin creates a dark and complex world that’s somehow so sensible, so recognizable, that once it’s entered, no one can ever leave.
In many thematic ways, Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes is just like other novels, essays, and discourse about the way our world is connected, how we are technologically linked. Themes regarding responsibility of technology users and developers, ethical limits and personal boundaries, and what being connected means when people are physically apart, are almost always a given when the topic of technology arises, and the only thing stopping such novels, essays, and discourse from being dull is of course, the writer and perspective. It doesn’t feel too bold to say that Samanta Schweblin’s writing and the various perspectives she presents in Little Eyes are some of the most thoughtful, provoking, and important in this genre and discussion.
The main subject of Little Eyes is “the gadget” introduced at the very start: a kentuki. This stuffed animal-like object is available for purchase by the public in a variety of forms—crow, dragon, owl, and bunny are the ones we become most acquainted with—and everything from their purchase price, box, charging mechanism, camera, and 4G connection are of great importance to all the characters (smartphone users in the world outside of Little Eyes can surely relate to the consideration of these things to some degree). Two users are connected to one kentuki: the keeper, who purchases it and keeps it in their home, and the dweller, the person who controls the camera and physical movement (wheels and sounds) of the kentuki on their schedule. The dweller does so from the comfort of their own computer or tablet; the keeper is responsible for making sure the kentuki can always access its charger—or not—and ultimately for its physical well-being—or injuries. The question of whether it is “better” to be someone who lives (keeper) or be someone watching another person live (dweller) comes up frequently throughout the book. Stories from both perspectives make it more difficult to come up with a definite answer; this is the case for other questions raised throughout each chapter. Questions like…
What reward is there for our relationships with others? How does being connected lead to fulfillment? And is that fulfillment empty, hollow? There are some who don’t receive adequate or any attention from the people physically near them; how is that so? Why is it sometimes easier to feel connected to people miles or oceans away? When you only get a snippet of their lives? Because after all, the keepers only allow the kentuki to see what they want it to see, and thus, the dwellers can only make judgements on or feed their curiosity with those limited snippets, which, if it’s all they get, can seem more profound than they really are.
Little Eyes is set up in a forward-moving, consistent timeline, however the chapters take place in different countries throughout the world, and each has its own main character and/or cast of characters (whose ages range from child to elder). We return to a handful of these characters and their specific stories throughout the novel, whereas others only make one or two appearances. This technique is quite satisfying, in that anticipation within each developing perspective never really wavers, and the scattered familiarity keeps the reader hooked; sometimes the reader knows the keeper and the dweller, other times we are only privy to either the keeper or the dweller. Due to the fact that we move from country to country, person to person, the pace is relatively quick, yet it never feels choppy. Thus, the reader can adequately submerge even deeper into each situation.
“She had two lives, and that was much better than barely having one and limping around in free fall. And finally, what did it matter if she made a fool of herself in Erfurt? No one was watching, and it was well worth the affection she got in return.”
What gives the book its overall creepy factor—because there are sweet and heroic moments scattered throughout—is the fact that a kentuki always has a human controlling it. There is always an actual person behind the camera (the dweller), and sometimes boundaries are crossed and privacy is infringed upon because despite the far away connection, Samanta Schweblin reminds us that humans are curious, especially when it comes to other people’s intimate, personal, and/or vulnerable moments. Some dwellers become obsessed with their keeper’s life, while a keeper may become obsessed with trying to develop a way to communicate with the dweller behind the camera; still others try (and sometimes succeed) to make contact by seeking out an address or phone number. While it feels like some of these instances are of the neutral, curious kind, there are also the harmful, predatory kind, which brings up the question of whether or not curiosity in these instances are always harmful to some degree.
“And only after sending it did she realize that, as soon as he received the message, he would also have her number. She thought of Ines, who still insisted that having a kentuki meant opening the doors of your house to a complete stranger, and for the first time she understood the real danger it implied.”
It would expose too much to delve into each narrative, each character’s purpose in the novel in this review—part of this story’s genius comes out of each reader’s own realizations and reflections. It is quite an experience to travel back and forth between the different relationships of keepers and dwellers, and see how the kentukis impact the many facets of reality, from the family home to how reality is reflected in art. And it is extraordinary that one writer could have included such complex characters and storylines, leaving hardly any corner untouched. You are likely to find a character in Little Eyes that you relate to, whether you prefer not to rely on technology for connections, are interested in the discussion about privacy, online or digital relationships, would jump at the chance to fight for kentuki rights and autonomy, or battle to find meaning in whatever reality is in front of you.
“There was also another indulgent state she loved, one that was hers alone. She’d lock herself in a room and concentrate on marathon binges of TV series, only to return to reality many hours later. She was left ‘fragmented’—that’s how [she] liked to describe it. It was a dizziness that put her dumbest fears to sleep and, maybe because of the isolation itself, returned her to the world clean and light, open to the simple pleasures of a little food and a good walk.”