The Rooster

The Rooster Summer Reading Challenge: Week 11

We enter the home stretch of the 2017 Rooster Summer Reading Challenge with the brief, surreal Fever Dream, our final book of the season.

Welcome to the Rooster Summer Reading Challenge, brought to you by The Morning News Tournament of Books and our presenting sponsor, Field Notes. All summer long, we’re reading two novels a month and reconvening on Wednesdays to discuss the books. Joining our chats is a monthly guest judge, who at month’s end decides which title heads to our summer championship on Aug. 30—when you choose which book gets an automatic berth in the 2018 Tournament of Books.

For August we’re reading Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan (selected by the ToB Committee) and Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (chosen by Victor LaValle, who joined us in June), with novelist Rachel Khong.

 

Nozlee Samadzadeh: It’s time for the sixth and final book of the summer: Fever Dream, shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize and picked for the Rooster Summer Reading Challenge by Victor LaValle, our June visiting novelist.

To set things up, the book takes the form of a dialogue. Amanda is trapped in a hospital bed, recounting her recent past for David, who urges her on toward an unknown point in the story she tells. We learn Amanda is fiercely protective of her young daughter, Nina; we learn they’re in David’s rural hometown on their summer vacation, where Amanda has befriended David’s mother Carla. We learn that after David was sickened in an accident involving poisoned water, Carla took him to a spirit healer, who migrated his soul to another body to save him, leaving a stranger’s soul inside his body.

I should stop there. How did I do, Rachel? Did I just spoil the book?

Rachel Khong: You’ve ruined everything, Nozlee! I’m kidding of course. I actually don’t know if any kind of description or summary could do the experience of reading this book justice. It is so strange, and so unsettling. I mean that in the best possible way. As with my regular trailer-after-movie habit, I read the summary of this book only after I read our first assigned half; I went into the book not knowing what to expect, only that a horse would be involved somehow (the cover gives that part away; it’s a pretty sad-looking horse).

Nozlee: This confused me, so I just picked up the book and a realization: My copy has a McNally Jackson-branded “autographed copy” sticker directly over the horse. This whole time I thought the cover was just abstracted circles!

Rachel: But I’m not sure the jacket copy quite does the book justice. It is, as promised, fever-dream-ish.

Nozlee: After watching the movie Dunkirk, I went online and learned about the Shepard tone, which is a scale that gives the illusion of constantly rising or lowering in pitch (so perfect for the soundtrack of a war movie). I felt that way reading Fever Dream—the temperature keeps rising and never breaks. I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat, so I’m not shy about putting a book down if it’s too intense, but I couldn’t look away from Fever Dream. How was reading it for you?

Rachel: I couldn’t look away either. We sort of described Temporary People in this way too—written in a way that has a momentum, and that builds a world that can be disorienting to step out of. Yet this book’s intensity feels like a different sort—at least to me. I’m not sure how to describe it. Like Temporary People, Fever Dream has a magical feel to it as well. Yet the approach is so different. Aside from the obvious difference that one is a novel and the other a story collection, how would you describe the differences between Fever Dream and Temporary People?

Nozlee: I’ll take a stab at it: Temporary People foregrounded its surrealism and intensity over its characters and storylines, and as we saw in the comments, that wore on readers as the book continued.

In Fever Dream, the surreal elements of the story are only hinted at: Was the water that David and the horse drank poisoned because of a curse, or because of regular pollution? Is this the kind of world where souls can migrate between bodies, or the regular kind of world where gullible or backcountry people believe that it’s possible?

We’re given these big questions, but then the story itself is very small: an anxious mother trying to have a nice vacation with her young daughter is in the hospital, and we’re only beginning to find out how those questions might relate to her illness at the halfway point of this week’s reading. Letting that uncertainty hang around in the background of the story was the enticement I needed to keep going. Does that make sense?

Rachel: It does, and I agree with you. Your description of Fever Dream—I wonder if some might view that as problematic, a flaw. I didn’t mind not knowing what kind of story was being told. There’s an ambiguous anxiousness that mirrored the mother’s experience. Threats to your children can come from anywhere; whether regular or magical, a threat is a threat.

 

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Nozlee: I underlined a bunch of sentences in my copy of the book, and then felt weird about it because this book has been translated. (Even its title is different: El núcleo del disturbio translates via Google to something like “the core of the disturbance.”) I wish my Spanish were good enough to read passages like this in Schweblin’s original words: “She walks directly ... Upright and in a straight line, as if she were wearing a long dress that required a lot of concentration when she walked.”

Did you feel like you were reading a translated work?

Rachel: I had to remind myself that I was. I don’t read Spanish and I’m not at all qualified to say this, but I loved this translation—or at least the English words in the sequences in which they’ve been put. Then again, I very readily accepted anything strange in the book, including any strange syntax. I don’t know why, but I excessively loved this description of a can of mysterious peas: “It’s a can of peas of a brand I don’t buy, one I would never buy. They’re a bigger, much harder kind of pea than what we eat, coarser and cheaper.” The formulation is so strange and so perfect, and it surprised me. I loved it.

Nozlee: Kyle Chayka just wrote about the recent spate of super-short nonfiction books. I’d say that it’s been true in fiction lately, too: Fever Dream, Rachel Cusk’s Transit, Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up, and of course your first novel, Goodbye, Vitamin!

Rachel: I love Transit and All Grown Up; those books are continued proof that short doesn’t have to mean slight. I wonder if non-American writers are, in general, more comfortable with shorter books than we are. I’m thinking of novellas by other authors writing in Spanish. Recently I read Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, another beautiful and atmospheric small book. There’s Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, and Alejandro Zambra keeps things pretty short too.

Nozlee: Especially with my social media-addled attention span, knowing I get the pleasure of both starting and finishing a great book in a single sitting or long train ride makes the experience that much more special.

Rachel: I’m all for it. I love a book that can be read in a single sitting. If I’m into a book, I’ll turn it into a single-sitting book regardless of its length, and forget about sleeping. I remember reading Joan Didion say, in an interview, that she aims to write books that can be read in a single sitting, so that the reader doesn’t lose the rhythm or shape of the thing. You feel that with a book like Play It as It Lays, and I felt that with Fever Dream—the needing to keep reading, in order to keep the rhythm and shape. I didn’t want to step away. I may have read a tiny bit more than I was supposed to.

Nozlee: I understand the urge! As for me, I went exactly one line over this week’s assigned reading:

“But it’s dew. I still think it’s dew.”

It’s not dew.

Then what is it? I have a feeling there won’t be a satisfying answer. We’ll find out next week!

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The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s new novel is The Last Kid Left. Nozlee Samadzadeh is the ToB’s producer. More by The Tournament of Books Staff

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