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In ‘Little Eyes,’ a human gaze more frightening than the digital

There’s a gut-clenchingly tender moment midway through “Little Eyes,” Samanta Schweblin’s deft and ineffably creepy new novel, when Emilia, a lonely Peruvian widow, gazes on a pair of closed eyes. “It had been a very long time since she had seen anyone with their eyes closed,” she observes; not since her son, a banker based in Hong Kong, made his last reluctant visit home. While the novel’s title immediately evokes the discomfort that being watched can provoke, for Emilia the shuttered eyelids represent the possibility that someone might trust her enough to let down their guard, and let her do the same.

Emilia is surveying not a friend, or a lover, or her distant son, but the synthetic eyelashes of her kentuki, a motorized stuffed animal that has enthralled people around the near-future world that Schweblin, the Argentine author of “Mouthful of Birds” (2008) and “Fever Dreams” (2014), conjures. Physical kentukis, which come in models from mole to dragon, are owned by a “keeper” but operated virtually by a “dweller,” someone anywhere in the world who has purchased the right to control the kentuki remotely and, through the cameras in its eyes, observe the keeper. The keeper gets a pet whose cuddly companionship is undergirded by real understanding, the kind of human sensibility many of us like to project onto our dogs and cats. The dweller gets the ultimate experience in voyeurism.

While I can conceive of almost nothing I want less than a stranger watching me while I watch the same episode of “Normal People” three times in my quarantine uniform of sweatpants and unwashed hair, two months of sheltering in place have been a humbling reminder of how much I rely on the presence of others to feel like myself. For the protagonists of “Little Eyes,” which unfolds as a series of unrelated stories, the allure of being seen is well worth the risk of being watched. Enzo, an Italian single father constantly at odds with his ex-wife, finds in his mole kentuki a helpful co-parent willing to collect his wayward son’s candy wrappers but lacking the annoying foibles of a real partner. For Alina, languishing at a Mexican artist’s residency while her lover, a famous painter, fools around with his assistant, a crow kentuki provides the mute attention she craves — and, later, an object on which to enact her growing feelings of anger.

With a click of her mouse, Emilia inhabits a rabbit kentuki whose keeper she initially knows as “cleavage girl” for her low-cut tops, but eventually comes to love as Eva, a hard-partying young German woman. In fretting over Eva’s wardrobe and her uncouth boyfriend, Emilia finds an outlet for her maternal energy. Meanwhile, the endearments Eva lavishes on her kentuki feel like compensation for the affection Emilia doesn’t receive from her real son. Emilia identifies so intensely with the mechanical animal in Eva’s apartment that when a friend gives her a rabbit kentuki of her own, it feels like “having herself move around her own house.”

By providing the opportunity to become so deeply acquainted with a stranger’s private routines, kentukis tap into a deep-seated desire for intimacy that isn’t otherwise available in the protagonists’ fragmented modern lives. “Little Eyes” flirts with an uplifting appraisal of human behavior by uniting its protagonists around this intensely relatable longing, which Schweblin evokes with language, translated by Megan McDowell, that startles in its bluntness. “They were important to each other; what they experienced together was real,” Emilia thinks when Eva references her kentuki in conversation for the first time. But the driving need to be known clashes quickly with an unpalatable tendency that, for Schweblin, is just as essential to human nature as any will towards connection: a general unwillingness to do the hard work of getting to know anyone else.

While the kentuki system isn’t designed to facilitate offline contact between keepers and dwellers, they almost always seek it. Keepers ask yes-or-no questions that their toys answer with blinks of their titular eyes. Dwellers deduce the addresses of the homes they virtually inhabit. By dismantling the scrim of anonymity, the characters seem to think, by pinning each other down through phone numbers and email addresses, they’ll arrive at a more complete version of the intimacy they’ve been approximating.

But revelation, when it arrives, is baroquely — or worse, mundanely — horrible. The avuncular companion Enzo imagined behind his kentuki turns out to be a mouth-breathing old man who lurks around his son with ill intent. Pettier, more ordinary, and somehow more shocking is the way Eva turns on her pet rabbit when she discovers it’s the avatar of an elderly woman cultivating an obsession with her love life. Vulnerability before another person is the result of any really intimate relationship. But the instant switch from devotion to cruelty it provokes, as instinctual in Eva as her earlier desire to cuddle the kentuki, puts all intimacy to an end.

On its surface, “Little Eyes” lampoons our indiscriminate embrace of each new innovation, a critique that aligns it with other tales of gadget-catalyzed dystopia like Dave Eggers’ “The Circle.” But while many such novels blame technology for corrupting previously benign human relationships, Schweblin’s novel suggests that it merely fails to compensate for the miserable ways humans conduct themselves. Used as intended, the kentukis really do make a lot of people happy. It’s only when their users try to “take the conversation offline,” as the Zoom jargon goes, that these tenuous relationships collapse. Schweblin rejects the conventional notion that the purest forms of intimacy are unmediated, unplugged and impossible to achieve online. Instead, she slyly suggests we love each other best when we erect enough barriers between ourselves and the human frailties of others.

In the novel’s final scenes, Alina discovers that her artist lover has collaborated with her kentuki’s dweller to create an art installation that serves up her deteriorating mental state for general consumption. “Sven had displayed her on her own pedestal; he’d separated all her parts so very delicately that she didn’t know how to move,” she realizes as, alongside hundreds of other museum-goers, she sees her own private actions projected on a screen. The promise of unguarded intimacy that Emilia initially discerned in the kentuki has given way to the reality of exhibition — not before the empty gaze of some digital golem but to hundreds of unforgiving, indelibly human little eyes.

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected]

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