Since I started working on the aesthetics that portray the ecological crisis, I have noticed a scatological discourse settling into the global imagination, in narratives that go from popular media to literature to film and art. In a sense, the idea of the crisis has been displaced by the idea of the end: the end of species, deforestation, hyperbolic fires that sometimes exceed the most far-fetched fantasies of fiction and film, vanishing glaciers, a planet that is reduced just as it is filled with refuse and trash. From contaminated rivers to oceans whose corals have turned white, streets and cities underwater, brutal hurricanes that flood and sweep away cars, lamp posts, buildings, people. This is a repository of images without clear points of reference that we will upload to the archives of memory in order to recall how the world was prior to all anthropogenic intervention. Apocalypse, from the Greek apokálypsis, means revelation. But such is the ephemeral. What is no longer. Our yesterday, perhaps. Or our before.
The slow violence of environmental degradation, as Rob Nixon defined it in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), is invisible and almost intangible, but it is able to permeate, little by little, the materiality of living organisms. The photographer Pablo Ernesto Piovano has depicted the deformations produced by herbicides and pesticides in the production of transgenic soy in Argentine rural space. The subjects depicted by Piovano suffer from various illnesses, such as ichthyosis, a disease that causes dry skin and that, in the case of Lucas Techeira—a little boy who appears in one of his photos at the age of three—is the result of his mother coming into contact with glyphosate during her pregnancy.
Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream (originally published in Spanish as Distancia de rescate in 2014; I’ll refer to the Random House edition from 2015) echoes this set of problems, although it does much more than this. Fever Dream is a novel about mutations and monstrosities, about an imagination in which a certain discourse of the end—premature death, generalized death, the mutation of children into deformed, almost phantasmagoric beings—along with the budding agony of this same ending, is translated into the materiality of the word. At the same time, Fever Dream deals with motherhood, the exasperation of losing a son or daughter, whether metaphorically or literally, and the parallel desperation of seeing a child transformed into a monstrosity, an unrecognizable subject that reduces the bases that maternal and/or paternal upbringing erects daily as a monument to its own reason for being (1). According to the author in an interview on the upcoming film based on her novel, Fever Dream is also a story about the aberration of the perfect: an inquiry into the cost of the beautiful and the collateral effects that its pursuit entails (2).
Fever Dream tells the story of Amanda and her daughter Nina, who come from the city (Buenos Aires) to spend the summer in the countryside, and the story of Carla and her son David, who live in the rural space where David has been poisoned before the narrative present, and whose story, told through Carla, ignites the action. David is not the only one to be contaminated by his contact with the water of a stream in which, we assume, herbicides and pesticides are dumped; such poisonings happen often, also taking hold of the bodies of Amanda and of her daughter in the text. The dialogue with David, which opens the story on the first page, describes the effects of the poison as “worms,” an invisible substance experienced by the town’s residents: “worms, all over.” The dialogue, which seeks to recover through Carla’s memory of “the exact moment when the worms come into being,” needs to go deeper, to dig into the “details” because it is there, precisely, where the knot of the story is tied. While Amanda reminisces, the text inserts fragments of the past into the dialogue, which in turn intercalate another dialogue, this time between Carla and Amanda. And so, the reader sees that when Carla refers to David, her son, she uses the past tense: “When David was born, he was the light of my life,” a little boy who “smiled all day long,” whose “favorite thing was to be outside.” But this very “outside,” the “natural” space in Fever Dream, consists of a menacing spatiality, a territory transformed by the implementation of technology whose ultimate end lies in maximizing agricultural production—especially, but not exclusively, of soy. In this way, natural space develops into a space manufactured for economic exploitation. Not only has the very idea of “pristine,” “virgin,” “untouched nature” been dissipated by the advances of progress and economic development, but natural space unmodified by anthropic action has practically disappeared. As the English sociologist Anthony Giddens suggests in Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity (1988), this is the end of nature, inasmuch as there are no places, no vestiges remaining in which we have not intervened, but this is also the corollary of the technological changes that have concretely intensified in recent years. The “natural” world, therefore, was substituted by a “post-natural” world, as Bill McKibben states in The End of Nature (2003).
It is in this intensified post-natural space that David, when he is about three years old, falls ill. We learn through the guiding threat of Amanda’s agonizing story that Carla’s husband, Omar, raised racehorses, and that one day, one of them escaped. When Carla went to search for the horse with David, the little boy, in a moment of carelessness, “knelt down in the stream”: “his shoes were soaked. He’d put his hands in the water and was sucking on his fingers.” By his side rested a dead bird. The next day, the same horse that had escaped reappears with “his eyelids so swollen that you couldn’t see his eyes.” What’s more, “his lips, nostrils, and his whole mouth were so puffy he looked like a different animal, a monstrosity.” The story is unleashed with a prolepsis: a panicked Carla, conscious of the eventual “disaster,” since “whatever the horse had drunk my David had drunk too,” rushes in search of someone who can “save [her] son’s life” at any cost. This maternal lapse (“sometimes the eyes you have aren’t enough, Amanda”), this fatal negligence is what gives the novel its name in Spanish: Distancia de rescate, the “rescue distance” an endangered subject can be from their rescuer and still be saved. In this way, Amanda asks herself (or asks Carla or David, since the other first person voice with which she converses is the same that reminisces, always in search of that exact point, about the details):
I’m wondering whether what happened to Carla could happen to me. I always imagine the worst-case scenario. Right now, for instance, I’m calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leapt into the pool. I call it the “rescue distance”: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should.
Motherhood enters into a game of doubles in which toxicity is ubiquitous. So as not to lose her son, Carla takes him to “the woman in the green house,” who suggests that they “try a migration” to save him, since the intoxication he is suffering is “going to attack his heart.” As a solution, they will move David’s “spirit” “to another body,” since “part of the poison would also go with him.” This is, in part, Carla’s story. Amanda, for her part, reconstructs through the story’s interwoven dialogue her own experience with her daughter, Nina, in the same town, where the signs of a certain strangeness, a certain horror that will mark her are already appearing: the little girl who limps and looks like “a monkey,” the dog that’s “missing a back leg” or the duck that falls down dead, like three others they had discovered, scattered “on the ground.” The rescue distance between Amanda and Nina is broken when the latter is wetted by the “dew” of the grass when she sits down to watch a group of men unloading drums of liquid near a stable. Amanda gets wet too. Sitting in the shadow of the trees, on cut trunks, in a rural space where the “soy fields stretch out to either side,” mother and daughter enjoy the “green” that surrounds them, unaware that their bodies are already starting to experience the glyphosate’s poison.
Amanda’s story is a voice, a discursive toxicity, that sprouts up from a body that is lying down, horizontal. It is an immobilized body that does not respond. Like those of the horses, the ducks, the dog, and other animals from the area, Amanda’s body is inserted into a field of cultivated plants, a town in which the children—like she herself, from the start of the narrative—are concentrated in the tiny waiting room of a precarious hospital, with no doctors, to receive medical attention at a moment when they are already unable to even write because “they can’t control their arms anymore, or they can’t control their own heads, or they have such thin skin that if they squeeze the markers too much their fingers end up bleeding.” This is a history of altered chronologies, where pesticides like diazinon and malathion, and herbicides like glyphosate, infiltrate through all the vital channels of human survival (the air through fumigations, the water through drainage of chemicals in streams, and the grass that contains and absorbs the daily dew), enter into bodies (human and nonhuman in equal measure), altering physical features, the landscape, and the constructed surroundings, denaturalizing them all. There, the children are “strange,” very few are born healthy, and the majority have deformations: “children. They don’t have eyelashes, or eyebrows. Their skin is pink, very pink, and scaly too.” Their bodies, like David’s, become monstrosities: an aberration caused by the implacable and invisible machine of a savage biocapitalism (as Kelly Fritsch says in “Toxic Pregnancies: Speculative Futures, Disabling Environments, and Neoliberal Biocapital”) that indiscriminately pushes humans and nonhumans toward an abyss of mutations and possessed bodies.
While the city is represented as the space of “noise,” “grime,” and the “congestion of everything,” David himself does not hesitate to classify the city as a “better place,” in comparison to the countryside, the rural space and the locus of the contamination. It is curious, nonetheless, that the relationship established between the characters and rural space serves to reproduce the culture of modernity. In the novel, Amanda and Nina do not make a move to the natural environment with the goal of fomenting a sort of biocentrism, of fusing their lifestyles with one that promotes the preservation of nature based—consciously or unconsciously—on ever more pressing notions, like the intrinsic right of nature and all its organisms (animals, vegetables, minerals) to exist. Nor does the countryside appear from a holistic perspective, as an ecosystem that preserves the diversity of species from a sustainable position. The women who protagonize the novel are white, middle class women who do not involve themselves in rural space. They bring urban culture to the countryside. But when rural space turns into danger, this beatus ille becomes a nightmare. When David asks Amanda why she thought Carla “was from out of town, too,” she answers: “Maybe because I saw her as so sophisticated, with her colored blouses and her big bun, so nice, so different and foreign from everything around her..”
Toward the end of Fever Dream, Amanda’s husband returns to the city, turning his back on the countryside, not looking back, perhaps hoping to erase it from his memory forever. “He doesn’t see the soy fields, the streams that crisscross the dry plots of land, the miles of open fields empty of livestock.” The rural space, the Argentine pampa, abandons the cattle-herding myth and settles within another mythology, that of the soy boom. Natural space, then, is degraded by the actions of men. It is clear that they are the ones who here represent the greatest threat to natural systems.
Fever Dream delineates, on the other hand, a series of disabilities that are translated into the immobility of Amanda, who lies prostate, and the blindness of the contaminated characters (“everything is white”), the deformations (the “girl with the giant head”), and even the “headache,” the “nausea,” the “skin ulcers,” the “vomiting blood,” and the “miscarriages.” The mother-child relationship represented by the double structure of Amanda-Nina and Carla-David is inserted into a space where the relation between the subject and its habitat are redefined. Here, the receiving bodies of a nature transformed into a mere “economic resource” consist of horrific metaphors of the continuous exploitation—through agriculture, minerals, petroleum, floriculture, and nuclear energy, among others—of a natural world that has also been reconfigured. Fever Dream, besides being a novel whose tension—not only between mother and child but also between reader and story—dilates and grows rigid as the narrative advances, is a fiction whose bodies exacerbate the apocalyptic speculations of which we are warned in the Anthropocene. Perhaps the urgency that now compels us to read it is the same that obliges us to rethink the very idea of the future, starting with today. This present in which it is still possible to glimpse the materiality of the catastrophe.
Translated by Arthur Dixon