Monday, October 12, 2020

Resistant to any kind of concretion or creation

Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin, was a real treat for me this week,  inspiring the kind of just-one-more-page feeling that kept me up past my bedtime. It did not fill me with paranoia and unease the way Fever Dream did (one of my favourite reading experiences of recent years), but instead made me ache with sadness and grieve over my relationships with people I barely know. And yes, that kind of reading experience is my idea of a good time — I'm complex that way.

The novel is a collection of vignettes about the connections formed by an expensive toy, a kentuki. It's the body of a Furby with the responsibility of a Tamagotchi and the power of an Elf on the Shelf, with human sentience. Some of the stories end abruptly and are very one-sided, others are picked up over and over again, much like every toy has a unique lifecycle — they are cast aside after a day, they break, they become part of your life.

The kentuki is not a straight-up surveillance device. The watcher is not a megacorporation intent on controlling your consumer behaviour or otherwise keeping you in line legally or morally. At the other end is a person with their own motivations.

The toy is really just a limited interface between two random people; one person buys the toy, the other buys a code that gives camera access through the kentuki's eyes and instant translation that's locked on the owner. So there are two types of people: keepers and dwellers (roughly analogous to exhibitionists and voyeurs). One character is both, which gives her a rare perspective. (Which would you be?)

This arrangement grants anonymity. We see how people behave when they don't know, or they forget, that someone's looking. The society begins to grapple with the legal responsibilities the parties owe one another. Various kentuki liberation organizations arise.

There's a lot of loneliness in this book. It's people failing to communicate, failing to connect.

And that morning, after coming back from her run and flopping on the bed with her tangerines, she kept turning the matter over and over with the sense she was getting ever closer to an epiphany. She stared at the ceiling and thought that if she were to organize her thoughts to guess what kind of discovery was coming, she would have to remember a piece of information that she hadn't thought about in days: at some point the week before, she'd gone down to the the only kiosk in the village next to the church, and in her distraction she'd caught a glimpse of something she would rather not have seen. Sven's manner of explaining something to a girl. The sweetness with which he was trying to make himself understood, how close they were standing, the way they smiled at each other. Later she leaned it was the assistant. She wasn't surprised, nor did it strike her as an important discovery, because a much deeper revelation suddenly caught her attention: nothing mattered. In her body, every impulse asked, What for? It wasn't tiredness, or depression, or lack of vitamins. It was a feeling similar to lack of interest, but much more expansive.

Lying in bed, she gathered the tangerine peels into one hand, and the movement brought her to another revelation. 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 last point at the other end of the continuum of beings on this planet. The un-artiste. Nobody, for no one and for nothing, ever. Resistant to any kind of concretion or creation. Her body placed itself in the in-between, protecting her from the risk of ever one day achieving something. She closed her fist and squeezed the peels. They felt like a cool, compact paste. Then she reached her arm over the sheets toward the head of the bed and left the peels in a little pile under Sven's pillow.

For me, this book is less about the horrors of technology than it is about the horrors of interpersonal communication and the impossibility of knowing anyone. We only know about people what they want us to know. We only see what they show us.

Even the artiste's shocking reveal is not necessarily any closer to "truth." Although his work appears to be a grand commentary on kentuki interactions, he shows us a carefully constructed artwork to communicate his message, the materials for which were acquired and curated and created under circumstances we know nothing about. 

I can relate to these stories in terms of what they say about my online activity, particularly dating — what I choose to share or not, the slice of someone else's life I'm privy to in return, the narrative I fabricate around it, the intentions and motivations I attribute to others based on nothing but the debris that clutters my own headspace, the degree to which I immerse myself in any relationship. But really, it's as applicable to real life — simply, what we experience of someone else is always limited, and when processed through complicated sets of assumptions, it becomes clear how far away we are from each other, and we stay that way.

Beijing — Lyon
South Bend 

No comments: