‘Little Eyes’ Not Looking to be Liked

Growing up, my little sisters had a Furby. It was one of the first-gen ones, not these smarter, freakier modern things, but it would still say things that seemed way too canny for being a hunk of plastic and fake fur.

So many repressed memories are flooding back right now.

In Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes, the Furby-like creatures in question can’t speak, but they can move and communicate better than my sisters’ toy—not on their own, but by a remote user controlling their every move.

The things are called kentuki, and they come in a variety of animal shapes: dragon, mole, bunny, panda, crow. When booted up, they connect with someone in some other part of the world who has paid almost as much as the owner (or “keeper”) of the kentuki for the privilege of being the anonymous controller (or “dweller”) of the kentuki. Neither keeper nor dweller knows who they’ll be matched with, and the 4G/LTE connection between them is supposed to be so encrypted and anonymized that neither can find the other.

But this is people we’re talking about, so there are ways around it.

Little Eyes as a novel has no throughline, no singular plot that is introduced and developed and ultimately resolved. Instead, we follow five people in different parts of the world in their respective sagas as keeper or dweller (or both, in the case of one).

For example, Marvin, a moderately well-off boy in Antigua whose mourning for his mother takes the form of simultaneously failing his classes and becoming a dweller, finds himself inhabiting a dragon. Although his kentuki is mostly confined to a shop window, he gradually finds more freedom, culminating in him joining a grassroots kentuki liberation movement. But really, all he wants is to touch the snow he sees on the Scandinavian mountains in the distance.

In Croatia, Gregor buys up dweller code after dweller code, and then resells them to people wanting specific dweller experiences. A wheelchair user wanting to tag along with an extreme-sport junkie? Done. A retiree hoping to experience the sights and sounds of India? No problem. Demand grows to the point he has to hire help. But the thing about kentuki is that you’re never sure who or what is on the other end, and Gregor finds himself chewing way more than he meant to bite off with his little side hustle.

There’s also a divorced father in Italy finding unexpected kinship with his son’s discarded kentuki, a neglected girlfriend in Mexico hoping her new crow kentuki can make her feel less lonely, and a Peruvian woman whose motherly instincts for her keeper in Germany takes the keeper-dweller relationship past the point of propriety. Those stories are interspersed with a few one-off vignettes, including a retirement-center owner trying to jazz up life for current and prospective residents, and a dweller who falls in love with a fellow kentuki.

The cover of Samanta Schweblin's Little Eyes, featuring an off-white background upon which are dozens of lime-green eyes. They look untidy, as if drawn with crayon by a child.
Don’t look now, but they’re watching you. They’re always watching.

Opting to take a more scattershot approach at exploring the concept of kentuki is a smart one; it’s hard to imagine a single story being able to hold an entire global obsession with a morally dubious product without feeling rushed. Through the kaleidoscope of experiences, Schweblin is also better able to show more facets—good and bad—of life with kentuki. The unexpected friendships. The connection across continents. The potential—guarantee—for needless cruelty in the hands of more violent keepers. The possibility for abuse of every kind. (Before you ask, yes, Schweblin assures us there is kentuki porn in this universe.)

For the most part, Schweblin’s exploration feels more realistic and pragmatic than exploitative. I mean, no one has a happy ending, per se, but the outcomes mostly feel expected, earned. The exception for me, though, is with Alina, the neglected girlfriend, whose treatment of her little crow kentuki grows progressively violent as she unravels with boredom and the certainty that her boyfriend is cheating on her. At the very end, Schweblin twists the knife a little too far, taking Alina’s much-earned shame (of her behavior to a helpless thing) into territory so gimmicky that it felt like a plot hole, and souring my overall perception of the book.

Which is too bad, because this is an interesting read. I didn’t enjoy myself, especially, and I won’t read it again, but it’s given me plenty to think about. Maybe with time, my feelings will change. Or, maybe I’ll just live on, hating Furby even more.

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