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  • Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream:Watery Toxicity, Percolating Disquietude
  • Olivia Vázquez-Medina (bio)

Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream (Distancia de rescate) can be read as a literary exploration of disquietude: trepidation, apprehension, fear, and dread are the troubling affects that give the novel its distinctive "feeling tone."1 The excerpts from the press reviews included in the English edition capture the overwhelming emotional potency that readers find in it: qualifiers such as "disquieting," "thrilling," "frightening," "nauseous," and "disturbing" all come up; "terrifying" and "eerie" appear more than once, with some reviewers vividly describing the "dread" and "fear" triggered by the book in striking bodily terms: "by the end I could hardly breathe," writes Max Porter. Jesse Ball—whose novel The Curfew is quoted in Fever Dream's epigraph—warns the reader: "Schweblin will injure you."2 Fear, of course, is one of the emotions linked to the aesthetic experience since Aristotle's study of tragedy; in her novel, Schweblin masterfully constructs a plot that interweaves contemporary anxieties around ecological disaster and environmental [End Page 1] toxicity with a feeling of unremitting maternal dread, in a narrative whose pace is dictated by the impending onset of death.

This essay examines how disquietude—which I use here as the umbrella term that comprises fear and a general sense of apprehension, "uneasiness, anxiety, [and] worry" ("Disquiet," def. a)—is textualized in Schweblin's novel at various levels and through a series of formal and thematic means. My reading elucidates the multiple and dynamic interconnections between emotion, toxicity, and literary form in this text. Unlike other critical work on Fever Dream, this essay does not focus on the novel's environmental concerns at the expense of its aesthetic operations; instead, it considers them in tandem, arguing that only through an attention to the latter can the former be discerned in earnest. I start by looking at the text's narrative composition and posit the emotional mirroring between the two mothers as the origin point of a pervasive sense of dread that is concomitant with the generalized spread of toxicity in the diegetic world. Through a series of close readings, I explore how the action of toxic chemicals, diffused mostly in watery form, underlies the shared substance of human and nonhuman animals. I see this quality of interconnectedness reflected in the novel's form, with the technique of embedded dialogues allowing for the percolation of disquietude from one narrative and temporal level to the next. A brief section focusing on the intensity embodied by the invisible thread that links mother and child allows me to wrap up the discussion of the relations between narrative and affective interconnectedness throughout. The conclusion situates the urgency that informs Fever Dream in the context of its environmental and aesthetic preoccupations. My overarching argument is that in Schweblin's novel, disquietude is conveyed (communicated and imparted) through narrative technique, plot, form, and style. While crafting and staging a powerful model of emotional readerly solicitation, however, the novel calls attention to the affective work it performs. In doing so, it denaturalizes those very processes of sympathetic or "contagious" affect on which it premises its aesthetic operations.

Ubiquitous in recent critical and theoretical debates, "affect" is a slippery term, so a note on terminology seems pertinent. A distinction between "affect" and "emotion" is often made in recent theory, [End Page 2] particularly in those approaches influenced by Brian Massumi. Following thinkers such as Spinoza and Deleuze, Massumi understands affect as preconscious, prepersonal intensity, while emotion comprises a degree of codification or interpretation of that affect, thus denoting "a subjective content, the sociolinguistic fixing of the quality of an experience which is from that point onward defined as personal" (28). Rei Terada gives his own take on this: "by emotion we usually mean a psychological, at least minimally interpretative experience whose physiological aspect is affect. Feeling is a capacious term that connotes both physiological sensations (affects) and psychological states (emotions)" (4). Massumi's conceptualization has not gone unchallenged; significant and compelling reservations are raised by scholars including Ruth Leys and Sara Ahmed. Although I engage with Massumian insights at specific points in this essay, I do not insist on the distinction, mindful...