Wednesday, March 8, 2017
A novel with lots of atmospherics that brings us nowhere
I'll say this about Samanta Schwelbin's very short novel, Fever Dream: It does feel much like a dream, w/ the tumultuous and inexplicable cross-cross of events and feelings in dream logic - a child is in a room behind locked doors and then suddenly outside of the room, strange forebodings and premonitions, always the threat of catastrophe just beyond the grasp of reason. The story, narrated entirely in a dialogue between a woman (Amanda) who is we learn in a coma or catatonic state in an rural emergency clinic after some kind of poisoning and a 10 or so year-old boy (David), who 6 years back had endured a similar poisoning which, it seems, changed his personality - making him somewhat like a severely autistic child, although the diagnosis is never clear. It may be (dream logic) that David doesn't even exist, and he's a projection in Amanda's fevered brain. OK, so over the course of these 180 (very small) pages we learn that Amanda and her daughter, Nina, have come on vacation in a rural village (in Argentina? Schwelbin is an Argentine writer, living in Germany) where she learns that David, a neighbor's son, has suffered this strange poisoning about 6 years back; over time, she sees that many children in the town seem to have birth defects or other symptoms of poisoning. Then Nina becomes ill - and finally Amanda herself. Over the course of the novel, David, interrogating her about why she's in the clinic, insists that she hurry her narrative, there's only limited time; he says often, as she narrates, "this isn't important" and then at other times "this is important" as if he's trying to unearth vital facts about his (or her?) illness. There's a lot of tension and mystery - and yet - I have to say - very little results from all the tension. There's no explanation about these mysterious poisonings nor about why David is interrogating Amanda nor about why some parts of her narrative are important and others aren't. Yes, we do see that in the fields around the village farmers are using chemicals, most likely highly toxic - but is this story an allegory of some sort? I don't think so; as the title says, it's like a dream, for better or worse. But dreams don't have conclusions - we just wake up. That's a disappointing end to a novel that has a lot of atmospherics but - unlike, say a scifi movie or miniseries, which has to at least strive for explanation or conclusion, however feeble - brings us nowhere.