Following the story
This brilliant, unsettling novel is a nightmare of elusive connections
By Toh Hsien Min
One rule of thumb I have is that if I whizz through a book of poetry, it's probably not very good because of the absence of the friction at the edges of language to engage with, but with prose the rule is virtually inverted, possibly due to the narrative imperative. There are not many novels that I have not been able to put down in order to deal with some other detail of life, but one that recently ensnared me for its whole length, and indeed dragged me back for a reread, is Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream, which I first finished in a mere two hours in one Saturday afternoon sitting.
This is because of how the Argentinian writer's novel exerts a vice-like grip from its impressive entry, wherein every word is heavy with economy. In three words, the "boy who's talking" sets up the dynamic of dialogue in the interweave of italics. "The sheets are rough, they bunch up under my body. I can't move, but I'm talking" likewise erects the hospital bed setting, and starts to pose the question of how the protagonist can be speaking. But if the dynamic tension is tersely set up, this compression quickly transfigures into a key element of a puzzle. What's going on?
About Fever Dream, some facts are clear. We are listening in on a young woman named Amanda, who is heavily anaesthetised and dying in an emergency clinic in the Argentinean countryside, many miles away from her home in Buenos Aires. The "boy who's talking" is named David, but he is not her son. He is driven on by a mission to find out "the exact moment when the worms come into being", which is "important, it's very important for us all". Amanda has a young daughter, Nina, for whom her concern shades into paranoia, which she characterises through what she calls the "rescue distance": "Right now, for instance, I'm calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leapt into the pool." However, Nina is clearly absent from the scene. Instead, it is David urging Amanda to go through her memories for what seems to be a fifth time, playing the role of an curator in trying to funnel her towards what is important in her account, with no indication why any of it is important, as she keeps bucking like a colt towards what is important to her, straining after multiple narrative threads taking place on different planes of time, in media res Russian-dolled in media res.
The semblance of a conventional story takes shape as Amanda cycles through her memories for what is not a first time. She skirts over the vacation house, the pool, the car, and settles on David's mother Carla in a gold bikini relating a story from years ago of the prize stallion poisoned by the water and how the same water would have killed David also except for the woman in the green house who carries out a "migration" of David's spirit to save him, and then how after spending a day at the shops Amanda is spooked by the sudden appearance of David in the vacation house layered on top of the Carla's story, and she resolves to leave town the next day, only to be delayed by Amanda's wish to say goodbye to Carla at Sotomayor's, where Amanda and Nina come into contact with something wet…
Except that the story doesn't proceed in such a simple fashion. There is, as the novel progresses, increased fracturing of the narrative, notably in the mixing of time, between real time and recollected time or between various recollected times, to the extent that at one point David responds to Amanda's recollection in the present:
Or when Amanda declares: "Yes. But I'm on the floor, and it's hard to follow the story", and David urges her not to get up, it appears to be happening in real time, because she adds "I think I lie down in the field, too." On the surface, the crossing of narratives, the skipping over and jumping ahead increases the sense of confusion. It contributes to the gradual ratcheting up of urgency; when David reorders time ("No, Amanda, that was before"), this points to Amanda's increased loss of her faculties.
Nevertheless, through this elusiveness, there is yet an astonishing consistency of voice, which has to do at least in some part with how the diction circles around the same small clusters of words, and it is one cluster, in particular, that tells us not to fall for the story. As David constantly reminds Amanda, "None of this is important." He sidesteps Amanda's awareness of her impending mortality and her concern for Nina to focus on the recent past, through a constant refrain echoing all over the text:
When Amanda declares an interest in the green house, saying: "That's the story we need to understand", David contradicts her: "No, that's not the story, it has nothing to do with the exact moment." A few moments later, Amanda challenges him: "Why? I need to understand which things are important and which aren't", but David evades the question. For me, that seems to be right at the heart of the novel. David may tell Amanda, "You're confused, and that's not good for this story", but for Fever Dream as a novel her confusion is very good for the story. Or rather, it is not the story that is important, but how the story is told that opens up all sorts of interpretative space.
I have formulated at least three overarching interpretations for the novel that are simultaneously at odds with one another and yet are supportable by the evidence in a self-consistent manner. Without, I hope, making it spoiler-obvious, I do have a favourite, centred around another cluster of phrases:
These are put together with David's occasional amnesia, knowledge of architectural design ("That door doesn't open from inside, none of our doors can be opened from inside") and throwaway advice to "Don't drop your head like that, it makes it harder to breathe".
It is true that a large slice of the horror owes to Amanda's ultimate inability to keep Nina safe, to face a chasm of a rescue distance just at the point when rescue is most needed. There is even some textual support, for instance when in response to Amanda asking whether the rescue distance is important, David concedes: "Very important." Further, there is even an exponentiation of this horror in the chilling yet beautiful final paragraph.
But that may not even be the dominant driver of the way the novel gets under the skin, or at least certainly not to a reader yet to experience parenthood. Rather, the horror is more universal, that despite the apparent presence of David, whoever you may read him to be and however you credit his motives, Amanda is ultimately alone, in all the senses of that word, at her moment of extremity, even without observing how what I shall call the extension of her dream paints a world where there can be no meaningful connection ever again. That makes Fever Dream a novel like a dagger through the innards, one a reader is unlikely to forget.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 2 Apr 2018