Fever Dream
  • March 26, 2018


  • Samanta Schweblin

    4Fever Dream
    4Dear Cyborgs

    Eugene Lim

  • Judged by

    Shelly Oria

Dear Cyborgs

I imagine Dear Cyborgs making its way to Brooklyn in the darkness of its shipping envelope, full of anticipation and excitement—I mean, if you were a book, wouldn’t you be excited to take part in this tournament?—and then it arrives at its destination, waits by the doorstep for long hours, and when finally the package is picked up and opened, when finally Dear Cyborgs is freed from the confines of its wrapping… It sees me. It sees me and just knows that we are not a good match. Books can always tell right away.

Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), which earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, among other honors. Recently she co-authored a digital novella, Clean, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s, which received two Lovie Awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

People are slower, or at least I am. I am also superficial, so my first thought holding this book was that it had a really cool cover. That, combined with the fact that apparently it’s an FSG Originals book AND ALL FSG ORIGINALS ARE THE BEST BOOKS (which I may or may not be contractually obligated to say as an author who’s also with that imprint), made me all giddy to read, to find out who Eugene Lim is and what his book is all about. And the first chapter did not disappoint. The narrator, a teenage boy in Ohio of the 1980s, is telling us about his friendship with Vu, the only other Asian boy in their Midwestern school, in a way that any human being with a human heart would find touching and compelling, but especially me, because, well, fiction about immigrant families, about any kind of outsider experience? That is so up my alley—both as a queer woman and as a writer who came to this country in her 20s. To say that this theme strikes a chord would be, ahem, an understatement.

“And my focus during this time of boyhood was Vu,” Lim writes, “who I worshipped in a way I think not uncommon to boys of that age. I obsessed without acknowledging it but nonetheless with an open and even heady kind of love.”

But then, then, we drop those two boys, and it’ll be a while until we see them again. We transition to a whole other world: a world of fantasy and comic book superheroes, of a revolution that seems at once familiar and not, of extraterrestrials with special powers, of villains who are (I think) imagined, except I might be the one imagining their unrealness. Which is to say: I lost my footing. Time and again and again—1.5 times per page, give or take. “It’s not you, it’s me,” I said to Dear Cyborgs. I explained that the comic book world had always been a confusing space for me to navigate, and of course Dear Cyborgs sighed and said, “I’m not a comic book, like, not even close,” and also pointed out the innovative stuff it was doing with form. I nodded. We looked at each other. Our mutual disappointment hung heavy in the air between us. Our relationship was over.

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And speaking of breakups: Fever Dream! OK FINE, Fever Dream is not at all about a breakup. Let me ask you this: Have you ever had a book whispered to you? I hadn’t, until now, and I have been changed by the experience—no joke. But let’s backtrack for a second. If Dear Cyborgs, upon meeting me, took one glance at my face and thought, “Oh no, this girl is going to judge me?!” Well, Fever Dream saw me and went, Ha. “Ha” as in, I so got this. “Ha” as in, This sucker? I’m going to lure her into my cage, make a cute face so she pets me, AND THEN EAT HER ALIVE. You think I’m being dramatic? Read Fever Dream; this book will make you its bitch.

It is sweet at first, if a little strange: A woman in a hospital room is whispering a story to a boy at her bedside, and he listens, and he guides her with questions. “Keep going,” he tells her, “don’t forget the details.” We don’t know who these two are to each other yet—we understand pretty quickly they are not related—or what he aims for in his guidance, but the story is beautiful, enchanting, and as they whisper, we feel whispered to as well, and we kind of get the sense that this slim book will continue in this fashion for its entirety, that we’ll keep whispering and listening all the way to the end. (See how we circled back to the whispering thing?) But then, well, then. THEN. All I’m going to say is, it gets creepy af, and by the time you realize it, it’s too late.

Not to get too personal, but I do want you to know: It’s been a while since I’ve felt this way about a book. Is it that Fever Dream is an entire novel told in dialogue? Is it that this book managed to make me feel both tender and scared without relying on interiority, but only through the sheer power of its voice, the artistry of its descriptions, and the allure—and at times eeriness—of its rhythm and cadence? Yes. But also: love is mysterious, isn’t it? With Fever Dream I felt exactly the type of connection I was missing with Cyborgs—those moments when both my reader and writer selves are fully engaged, fighting for my attention: one wanting to cancel life and just keep reading, and the other constantly pausing to consider the craft of the book. In short, I fell hard for this one.

But I’m not possessive. I have a feeling you might like Fever Dream, and I want that for you. And sure, I said this book will make you its bitch, but I was joking, unless you like that sort of thing. My point is: If you two hit it off, I’ll be thrilled for you. I’ll tell everyone how I’m the reason you met. I’ll dance at your wedding.


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Match Commentary

By Rosecrans Baldwin, Nozlee Samadzadeh, and Andrew Womack

Nozlee Samadzadeh: Today’s guest commentators are an unlikely trio who spend their free time running book events on the internet. That’s right: Andrew, Rosecrans, and I have locked Kevin and John out of the commentators’ booth and commandeered the microphones.

Rosecrans Baldwin: Yeah, screw those guys! So, we all read the novels in question. What’d you think of the judgment? How would you have decided?

Andrew Womack: I would have gone the same way, for sure. And I think Judge Oria perfectly captured the feeling, for me, of Fever Dream: that it’s whispered to you. Simply due to time constraints—I haven’t had time to read books since having children—I listened to the audiobooks of both of the contenders here. And in that format, especially with headphones on, Fever Dream was quite literally whispered, straight into my brain, and I really felt the urgency of the entire story, and it completely pull me in.

Dear Cyborgs, however, did not. It’s a fun book with so many compelling twists and turns, but what held me back was its episodic construction—which is exactly what it needed to facilitate all those unexpected shifts. But still.

It’s like the TV trope of negative continuity, where each episode is a full reboot, so nothing that just happened had much of a bearing on the overall arc. In the context of Dear Cyborgs, without revealing too much, it’s also essential to how the book operates. So it actually does work, but for me the effect was that I could put it down without feeling the pull to come back. In comparison, that driving, single-purpose plot of Fever Dream meant I couldn’t turn away.

Nozlee: On paper, I love unusual narrative devices, stories about assimilation, and superheroes, and actively avoid body horror and suspense. In reality, I gave Fever Dream full access to scare the shit out of me and loved every second of it, and I finished Dear Cyborgs mostly for the sake of finishing it (despite it being a fun book, as Andrew describes). So I totally agree with Judge Oria’s decision, but funnily enough, while I can’t imagine being brave enough to read another Schweblin novel, I would happily give whatever Eugene Lim writes next a go.

Andrew: Definitely.

Rosecrans: I already talked about admiring Cyborgs, though, like Judge Oria, I never found my footing. My reaction to Fever was a little more sure, if mixed. I went through it in a tear, pacing around the house. I loved the tension, the atmosphere, the unknown, the suggestion that contamination is often noticed too late. This novel creates a lot of mood in a small space. And I’m always happy to see a book in translation reach such a large audience. But it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t have that visceral response so many people have described, and without any scare or shivers, there wasn’t a whole lot else.

Judge Oria said something that struck me, that both her writer and reader selves were engaged. My writer self was intrigued, but my reader self was mostly trying to reach the end.

Andrew: I wasn’t frightened as much as I was hungry to figure out what was happening. And once that was revealed, I found it actually quite chilling, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit.

I agree with Judge Oria’s sentiment here for sure, in that this was a book that took control of my emotions and yes, a little bit of my sense of reality. Maybe I just got lucky with Fever Dream, because about an hour into listening to it, I came down with the flu. From then on out, sequestered with my headphones in a completely dark room, sweating, dipping in and out of actual fever dreams, that’s how I listened to the book.

Rosecrans: I really don’t think that’s the recommended experience.

Andrew: It was the book equivalent of watching The Wizard of Oz while listening to The Dark Side of the Moon.

Nozlee: Andrew, I’m glad you’re recovered! But also I like that example because it’s this universal trippy thing available to the general public, just like Fever Dream, and depending on how high you are your mental state, you can think it’s hugely meaningful or just cool and weird. This is Fever Dream’s third win of the month, and it’s been fascinating to watch both the three women who’ve judged it so far and the commentariat as a whole have differently calibrated but similarly inflected reactions to it.

Andrew: An aspect of Fever Dream that’s stuck with me long after finishing it is its portrayal of parenting as a life-and-death endeavor. This feels so accurate to my own experience as a parent. I’m not going to generalize here and say it’s how many parents feel about raising children, but for me the truth of being a parent is that it makes death more real. It’s part of the process. I can look at my children and know they’re here to replace me. And like many parents, that’s the outcome I’m trying to ensure.

And when I’m talking about death here, I’m not actually referring to the obvious worries parents have for their children’s safety. But I am talking about the depth of the fundamental urge to protect—the “rescue distance” Amanda references in Fever Dream—that, again, not to generalize here, but that many parents know has no limits. And this book tests that limit. How far would a parent go to save their own child (but—it’s an important distinction here—not someone else’s)? Whether we’re talking about Carla or Amanda here, as a parent I found their respective motivations are believable. How far were each of them willing to go to save their child?

Prior to having children, I may have heard a mother describe herself as a “mama bear” and thought, “Oh, that means you love and nurture and protect your children,” but what it really means is that if you pose a threat near her child, she’ll kill everyone in the room. And many parents will nod along with that because of course that’s what it means—because of course that’s what mama bears are really known for. And because as parents, we may have these primal, questionably legal instincts.

So how far would I go to save my child? Would I go as far as Amanda or Carla? As metaphysical as Fever Dream is, it’s still a believable premise for me. Would I be a mama bear and eviscerate a room to save my child? Well, I’d spare Rosecrans because he’s one of our children’s godparents, so if I’m slaughtered while carrying out said crusade, he’s required to step in and raise them.

Rosecrans: Wait, so as a non-parent, in this nightmare-case scenario, do I acquire those instincts upon your passing? (Including a set of Wolverine claws?) I don’t think we discussed this at the time.

Andrew: It was in the fourth addendum.

Rosecrans: Nice to know. Well, as I was reading Fever Dream, I found myself wondering if, by not being a parent, I was missing out on part of the book’s dread. I guess so. Nozlee?

Nozlee: I caught the full force of the book’s dread, and to be perfectly honest, if overshare-y, that dread got added to the “reasons to not have children” ledger I keep in the back of my head—that primal instinct is very real, and a huge responsibility. I wouldn’t blame anyone for sidestepping it. (Anyone want to recommend a feel-good book about parenthood as an antidote?)

Tomorrow we hand the commentary reins back to Kevin and John as writer Ashley C. Ford sends either Pachinko or Exit West to the Zombie Round. It’s the last week of the Tournament, and anything could happen—see you in the comments.

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