Fever Dream
  • March 28, 2018

    Zombie Round

  • Samanta Schweblin

    4Fever Dream
    Z1Exit West

    Mohsin Hamid

  • Judged by

    Juliet Lapidos

Exit West

Is there a handy expression for the opposite of a loose and baggy monster? A tight and form-fitting domesticated animal doesn’t sound right, although I guess it’s what a thesaurus would offer. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream both fit into that category. You could read either on a plane ride (or maybe both, on a transpacific flight). And if you take any longer, if you let your reading experience stretch out over a week or more, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Juliet Lapidos is the op-ed editor of the Los Angeles Times. Previously she worked at the New York Times and Slate. She has written for The Atlantic, the New York Times Book Review, and the websites of the New Yorker and the New Republic, among other publications. Her first novel, Talent, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in January 2019. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I went to a dinner party with Percival Everett, and I sat next to Elif Batuman on a plane but only realized who she was after the fact!”

Exit West is ripped from the headlines—of newspapers and journals rather than tabloids. The subject is migration, more or less. “More” because the protagonists, Saeed and his newish girlfriend, Nadia, have to flee their unnamed, war-torn country for Mykonos, then London, then the Bay Area. “Less” because Exit West skips over the whole fleeing/actual migration bit. Saeed and Nadia, along with lots of minor characters, don’t have to trek across a desert or take a perilous journey on a lethally overcrowded dinghy across the Mediterranean. They just step through a door.

Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. … Most people thought these rumors to be nonsense, the superstitions of the feeble-minded. But most people began to gaze at their own doors a little differently nonetheless.

This magical device gives Exit West the light feeling of a fable rather than a Serious Work on a Serious Subject. (Like I said, a pet not a beast.) And it allows us to focus more on the psychological consequences of dislocation than the trial of dislocation, very much including the consequences for Saeed and Nadia’s relationship. Spoiler: If you escape from your country with your romantic partner, through a door or otherwise, things get pretty intense pretty fast.

Occasionally, the book abandons the personal for the explicitly political. Although Exit West does not endorse closed-border xenophobia, it doesn’t mock or hastily dismiss nativist fears, either. The narrator is patient and understanding: “…it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart. Without borders nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory, and people were questioning what role they had to play.” Lines like that approach true sympathy.

There are few false notes here. (Some fairly trite material in the more political sections.) And yet: I just never embraced the donnée of this story, the replacement of an arduous, often deadly migration with a quick passage through a dark doorway. Even though I understood the point (the change in focus) I got more and more sick of the metaphor the longer the narrative went on. I felt especially unmoved by all the little vignettes of people other than Saeed and Nadia opening doors into new lives.

Ultimately I thought this already short novel would have been better even tighter and more form-fitting. In a word: shorter, much shorter. Like, short-story length.

I can’t so easily sum up my feelings about Fever Dream. I’m not anywhere near an “ultimately” because what’s so impressive, and so pleasurable, about the novel is that it’s so shifty.

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $3 and Field Notes will match your $3 and donate $6 to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

The Bulgarian-French literary critic Tzvetan Todorov used the term “fantastic” for fiction that forces the reader to hesitate between natural and supernatural explanations of the events described. Fever Dream works well as an example but goes beyond most wait, did this really happen? stories because it’s not only the narrative proper but also the frame that feels unreliable.

A woman named Amanda, dying in a rural hospital, and a boy named David together recount the events that led to Amanda’s illness. The entire novel unfolds through their dialogue, like a play: It’s just Amanda talking and David peppering her with questions, guiding her to what he believes was the moment of crisis.

The reader has almost as many questions as David. We gather that, some time ago, David consumed some kind of toxin. His mother, Carla, went to a witch doctor whose incantations saved David’s life but radically altered his personality. The “real” David no longer resides in David’s body—but is that a metaphor or the literal truth? For that matter, was it the toxin or the incantations that changed David? Or is it possible that his transformation was purely the result of his mother’s paranoia? (She believed he was different, so he became different.) And—back to the frame itself feeling unreliable—is Amanda really talking to David, or is she hallucinating in a… fever dream?

Good books teach us how to read them page by page; this one teaches us to treat even mundane details as clues. As David repeatedly tells Amanda: “Your observations are very important.” We learn to fear the consequences of seemingly trivial interactions. The most terrifying line in the book might be “I touch her and yes, she’s wet,” and the most terrifying bit of dialogue:

But it’s dew. I still think it’s dew.

It’s not dew.

It’s not dew!

My heart rate went up on the first page and never came back down. I bit my nails until my fingers hurt, though I guess I do that even when I’m relaxed.

Exit West turns a major international news story into a delicate and wistful tale. It never really grabbed me and, once it was over, it didn’t leave a trace. (I went through that door and I never looked back.) But just thinking of Fever Dream still messes me up. I haven’t exorcised the sense of creepiness.

It’s not dew!


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Match Commentary

Drew Broussard & Christopher “C.D.” Hermelin

Christopher Hermelin: Hi, I’m Christopher, a literary agent and writer in Brooklyn.

Drew Broussard is a New York-based writer, musician, and performer. He co-hosts the podcast So Many Damn Books, plays guitar in the band Evelyn, and produces events with The Bellwether and The Public Theater. Christopher “C.D.” Hermelin is a literary agent and writer based in Brooklyn. Along with podcasting, he creates custom cocktails for events, his story-busking project The Roving Typist has been celebrated internationally, and one time a quote of his ended up on the side of a Starbucks cup.

Drew Broussard: And I’m Drew, a writer and producer of conversations and events, and a musician in Brooklyn.

Christopher and Drew, in unison: And we’re the co-hosts of So Many Damn Books, the literary podcast dedicated to a love of reading (and drinking), born out of the Tournament of Books comments section. We’re happy to be allowed back in the booth after 2016’s mug theft incident.

Drew: All right, Christopher, what’d you think of Judge Lapidos’s decision?

Christopher: I really love her idea that “good books teach us how to read them page by page.” I think that’s excellent, because it’s true, but to me it’s hard when it actually feels like that’s what happening while I read. Too didactic or something. Judge Lapidos writes, “We learn to fear the consequences of seemingly trivial interactions,” as though it’s a strength of the book. For me it felt like Schweblin didn’t have an endgame, so she hoped you got lost in the details. So Fever Dream didn’t work on me. But that’s fine, I have just been happy to read why it did work for other people. As far as Exit West goes, the judge’s writing cemented my opinion that I can skip that one.

Drew: I can understand Judge Lapidos’s criticism of Exit West’s “light feeling of a fable,” but I found that to be one of its strengths. I’m a big fan of the journalism happening around the international refugee crisis, especially Ben Taub’s work for the New Yorker, and I found it refreshing to read a story that tried to “focus more on the psychological consequences of dislocation [rather] than the trial of dislocation.” Exit West, to me, felt like the kind of book that convinces somebody to pay attention to a problem by not hammering it home with the same bleakness one sees on the news. (nudge nudge readitChristopherreadit)

Christopher: Nah, I have other stuff I wanna read more. Let’s play judge: How would you have decided?

Drew: I read them both and find that, despite feeling like Exit West is one of those Big Book of the Moment books, I can’t really be upset with this decision. I went and re-read Fever Dream as it started tearing up the left side of the brackets, and it still hit me with just as much dread as it did the first time around. A hard choice, one that might’ve gone the other way on another day—but today, I’m with Judge Lapidos.

Christopher: With my judge wig on, I’ll say Exit West is hit with my own bias of not liking the fable-istic style, right at the beginning. I knew I just wouldn’t want to read that book. No matter how compelled I am by the subject matter, that writing style would make reading that book a chore for me. Fever Dream started out an interesting prospect, but I lost interest when it started to feel like Season 3 of Lost—more mysteries instead of satisfying plot movement. But at least I liked how it started. I’m a Lost apologist. So I would have chosen the same too. Hey look, we agree.

Do you think Fever Dream won points for being shorter? As the Exit West expert in this booth, should it have been shorter?

Drew: I read Exit West over several days, so it got broken up by news and music and the world and life; I had time to digest it and respond to it before returning to the page. I’m not sure I would’ve wanted it to be shorter, but I also definitely didn’t want it to be longer.

Christopher: It is a rare book that I feel like, “Hm, this should have gone on longer.” The Idiot is the exception this year, in that I desperately want that sequel! Usually, most books that I don’t end up liking are books that I felt went on too long. I didn’t feel grabbed by Fever Dream, the white space and general shortness of the book just did what it was supposed to. Saying “I read it in a day” feels misleading. I did, but I was watching to see where the cogs didn’t catch, and disappointed in the machinery. It’s a side effect of reading a book you wouldn’t have picked up otherwise.

Drew: Whereas I am definitely one of the converted for Fever Dream. I’ve had a bunch of conversations lately about “one-sitting reads” and the pros and cons of that particular kind of reading experience, and the thing that comes up most frequently is how a reader often remembers more intangibles (feel, mood, etc.) than particulars during a one-sitting read. I read Fever Dream for the first time on a rainy May day at the recommendation of Victor LaValle—and those factors have as much presence in my memory as the actual first read. So, yeah, the visceral definitely influenced (and continues to influence) the rest of my interactions with the book.

Which makes me think about the criteria we (collectively) use to make Tournament decisions. For Judge Lapidos, the “what stuck with me” thing is what put Fever Dream forward.

Christopher: I kind of like when a critical juggernaut like Exit West goes down before the final round in the Tournament. But that’s a lame reason to move things forward. What would your criteria be?

Drew: I think it would’ve actually been the “fable” aspect. Both of these books have that fablistic quality, and so which one does it better? Fever Dream was like reading a modern Grimm—I had a sense of new dark pathways opening in the woods of my imagination. Whereas Exit West wanders down paths that I’ve seen before even as it tries something refreshing and original on the walk.

Christopher: Feels like you’re still trying to sell me on reading Exit West, Drew. Sorry I’m being difficult.

Drew: Speaking of dark new pathways: We should take a moment to acknowledge Fever Dream’s exceptional run to the championship. Not only was it a fourth seed, but it only made it onto the brackets after winning the Rooster Summer Reading Challenge. Feels like a true Cinderella story, no?

Christopher: You look for Cinderellas every year. Me, I’m looking for the Rapunzel—the book held in high esteem because it’s super cool, and a witch is keeping it from you.


Eye roll

Christopher: Anyway, Fever Dream has one of those paths in the Tournament that defies logic. I was far more interested in Saunders’s ethereal world than Schweblin’s; Selin is one of my new favorite literary heroines; Dear Cyborgs captured my imagination; and Exit West is one of those Books That Win Awards. But book prizes often defy logic. That Fever Dream keeps winning is actually incredibly encouraging—it shows that readers hunger for stories told in new forms.

OK, so Fever Dream is in the mix. That means there’s either going to be a rematch with a Zombie Lincoln in the Bardo, or a face-off with the mighty Pachinko. How do you see it doing?

Drew: Nothing would make me happier than to see a translated book finally take the Bird, so I have to say I’m pulling for it. I think if it goes up against Lincoln again, it’ll come through. But Pachinko feels like a crowd-pleaser—well, outside of the commentariat anyway—that would make for a too-close-to-call scenario. Still, I’d be well pleased with any of these three, even as I’m rooting hard for the translated weirdness.

Christopher: I found Saunders’s firework-writing paired with a satisfying plot incredibly powerful, so I don’t think it’ll have a shot in a Bardo rematch. And people often reward ambition like Pachinko’s. That might be the more interesting decision discussion to read. Either way, what a game. What a time to be alive!

Drew: Hey, and also, you lovely Tournament people, please check out our podcast, So Many Damn Books! We are 86 episodes in and we come out twice a month! We usually feature authors talking about their latest work as well as a book they just want to talk about. Cocktails inspired by their books are consumed.

Christopher: And in March, in honor of our roots, we do Tournament coverage! Start with our most recent episode, with Gabe Habash, author of ToB contender Stephen Florida, as well as our many recent episodes featuring other #ToB18 contenders, wherever you get your podcasts!

Nozlee Samadzadeh: Thank you, Drew and Christopher! It’s OK, you can keep the mugs.

Tomorrow brings the penultimate day of the Tournament, as Joseph Fink, co-writer of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, picks the other half of our championship matchup. Will Pachinko or Lincoln in the Bardo face up against Fever Dream on Friday?

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