The Poetics of Metamorphosis

April 10, 2021   •   By Muireann Maguire

SAMANTA SCHWEBLIN AND ANNA STAROBINETS are two of the most original horror writers active today. Their creative affinities, even their professional careers, hint at the sort of separated-twins plot that either woman might enjoy fleshing out in fiction. They were born in 1978; Schweblin, from Buenos Aires, now lives in Berlin, while Starobinets still inhabits her native Moscow. The success of each author’s debut story collection grew their reputations at home and abroad. Starobinets’s collection, An Awkward Age (originally published in 2005 and released in an English translation by Hugh Aplin in 2010), was a finalist for Russia’s prestigious National Bestseller prize, while Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream (first published in 2014 and released in English translation by Megan McDowell in 2017) made the shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize. Critics routinely compare both women to writers ranging from Borges to Beckett. Kafka is inevitably name-checked, although Starobinets’s aggressive formicaria have little in common with Kafka’s laid-back beetle. More often, Starobinets gets called “the Russian Stephen King.” Both she and Schweblin share a disturbing, Boschian imagination: their narratives abound in weird hybrid beings, aliens in disguise, and minds warped by grief or loneliness. But their story-worlds are recognizably our world, becoming both literally and figuratively toxic. 


Fever Dream relates the terror of a mother whose child’s personality has been replaced by a stranger’s, a mythical “changeling.” But the novel’s core terrors are the agricultural toxins — a neglected danger to public health in Argentina, as elsewhere — that can kill a horse overnight and that imperceptibly poison children through their skin. Even with supernatural help in the form of voodoo-like faith healing, nothing can be the same again once the surface of normality has been ruptured. Similarly, in Starobinets’s short story “Family,” a mundane train journey between Rostov and Moscow swerves into surrealism for a dog-trainer named Dima: he sees, or dreams he sees, another passenger remove his mangy fur hat, revealing just half a head, from which he proceeds to scoop ripe Muscat grapes. “The upper part of the skull was inexplicably missing: there was no brow, nor any back to the head, nor any crown, as though it had all been neatly cut off right along the line of the brows and removed, like the rusty lid of an old camping pot.” As in Schweblin’s novel, characters cannot recover from witnessing the unnatural; Dima’s train journey continues, but his life never gets back on track.


Uncanny visions, grief and estrangement, fairy-tale logic overtaking real life, grotesques invading the everyday — all are typical markers of Schweblin’s and Starobinets’s fiction. What makes their narrative universes so compatible and yet so distinct from the predictable monsters of mainstream Anglophone horror is a shared poetics of metamorphosis. This poetics often entails the literal transformation of their characters, like the schoolchildren turned into fluttering insects in Schweblin’s brief and delicate “Butterflies” or the boy changed by radical medical therapy into a bloodthirsty imago in Starobinets’s “The Parasite.” Change may be surgical — as in Starobinets’s “The Icarus Gland,” the title story of her 2013 collection (published in an English translation by James Rann in 2014), where a new trend for removing an apparently minor gland reduces adult men to lobotomized drones.


Symbolic change may be psychologically traumatic: Schweblin’s protagonist in “The Size of Things” is a small-town playboy who becomes captivated by his local toy store, playing ever simpler games with the stock until he regresses to the mental condition of a super-sized infant. Or take the lonely narrator of Starobinets’s “I’m Waiting,” convinced that her rotting kitchen garbage has spontaneously generated an intelligent life form. Starobinets’s skill here is to make the brutality of the sanitation crew who eventually storms the narrator’s apartment more shocking than her affection for the mold-creature. We cringe as the cleaners spray “something pungent and poisonous […] straight onto her. Straight into her face. And she had nowhere to hide.” By the story’s end, the narrator is stockpiling moldy apples, waiting for metamorphosis to work its magic again: “They’ve already changed a bit. […] And in a few days’ time they’ll have changed even more. […] She’ll come back to me.”


A poetics of metamorphosis is inevitably a poetics of reproduction and growth: of fertility and its humiliations, of parenthood and its despair. For Starobinets, pregnancy — and procreation generally — is often a method of control, or, conversely, a signal of intransigence. Her dystopian novel The Living (published in 2011 and released in an English translation by James Rann in 2012) begins with an unsanctioned pregnancy (evoking, a little too obviously, O-90’s off-grid birth plan in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1920s classic We); the story “An Awkward Age” ends with a very unnatural pregnancy indeed. While the plot of Starobinets’s short story “Family” is deliberately ambiguous, Dima has apparently been catfished by a broody extraterrestrial keen to conceive with a human male. When he disobediently revisits his old life, his new bride miscarries — and vanishes forever. 


Schweblin is adept at crafting short, terrifying fables that evoke the private tragedies of childlessness or failed IVF, such as “Preserves” or “On the Steppe.” In “Preserves,” a young couple consult midwives, obstetricians, even faith healers, until they finally discover Dr. Weisman’s innovative regime of pills, meditation, and diet. But this couple are not trying to start a baby: they want to postpone the one they’ve accidentally conceived to avoid disrupting their careers, yet without aborting the fetus. This produces a tenderly absurd plotline in which the traditional baby shower shifts into reverse: “My parents […] come for their gifts, reclaim them one by one: first the hooded piqué towel, then the pure cotton socks, finally the washable diaper bag with the Velcro closure. […] Mom asks if she can caress my belly one last time.” The rewinding of these rituals is comical, but Schweblin conveys the young mother’s anxiety and guilt just as deftly as the situation’s humor: “I’m afraid. I’m scared something will go wrong and we’ll hurt Teresita. Maybe she knows what’s happening; maybe this whole thing is all wrong. […] My body is shaking; I’ve lost control over it.” “On the Steppe” presents a more familiar perspective on infertility: a childless pair, longing to make a family, are invited for dinner by another couple who have already succeeded. Pol and the narrator are “desperate”: they have “reached their limit,” running the gamut of food supplements and gimmicky treatments. But the narrative slyly hints that their understanding of “trying for a baby” is not the reader’s: it entails nocturnal hunting on the steppe, with nets and torches, for an unnamed, never-seen creature. The other couple doesn’t let them view their new arrival because he’s “sleeping”; when Pol accidentally enters the bedroom, their hosts turn violent. Tautly balanced between need and fear, anticipation and repulsion, “On the Steppe” is as elusive as the blue lines on a pregnancy test.


Starobinets’s and Schweblin’s characters transform in bizarre and unnatural ways, sometimes simply because they are growing up — or apart. Bleak absurdist dramas unfold in familiar, homely places: kitchens, bedrooms, the courtyards between apartment blocks. The mother in Fever Dream is obsessed with establishing the perfect “rescue distance,” a fixed ratio of parent-child proximity that will keep her daughter safe. In reality, there is no such distance; children change in spite — or perhaps because — of their parents’ vigilance. In the title story of Schweblin’s collection Mouthful of Birds (published in 2010 and released in an English translation by Megan McDowell in 2019), a teenage girl starts eating small songbirds alive. Her new, secretive predilection, squeamishly discussed by her parents (who share the responsibility for procuring her feathery meals as meticulously as they share custody), evokes the gourmet cult of the ortolan. More probably, her sudden urge alludes to the mundane changes of adolescence, such as menarche, or even the personality shifts that teenagers undergo. The father knows his daughter’s habit is disgusting, but involuntarily he empathizes: “I wondered what it would be like to have a mouth full of something all feathers and feet, to swallow something warm and moving.”


Starobinets’s tales of mutated families wind our disgust up a notch. Nine-year-old Maxim in “An Awkward Age” has altered rapidly from an open, good-natured boy to a stolid, mute introvert, smart at school but friendless, obsessed with gobbling cake and stockpiling bags of sugar under his bed. His mother, saddened and bewildered, ascribes the changes to the trauma of his parents’ divorce, his father’s lack of interest, and an apartment move. But the new Maxim is a product of myiasis rather than metamorphosis. On a walk with his mother and sister — rescue distance notwithstanding — an ant colony invades Maxim’s body and hijacks his consciousness. He becomes a half-aware symbiote in a gruesome chain of hybridity, recalling both Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” (1984) and Bruce Sterling’s “Swarm” (1982). Creepy as it is to imagine ants running in and out of Maxim’s orifices, it is somehow even creepier that the boy tracks his sister’s menstrual cycle because the ants enjoy the smell of blood. The power of Starobinets’s implausible nightmares lies in how they betray, often through insect metaphors, the believable nastiness of normality. The Living describes a near-future hive society, its population fixed at three billion; the poor swarm in anthill-like slums, while the elite spend their lives online in multilayered virtual fora.


Technology, as a changing resource that also drives change in human society, is at the heart of these two writers’ poetics of metamorphosis. The computer as a Trojan horse for mind control is scarcely a new concept, but both Schweblin and Starobinets frame the creep of technological supremacy in the most innocent of guises: educational toys. In Starobinets’s short story “Shhmoochie,” the eponymous tablet (the Russian term Spoki plays on the words for calm down and goodnight) is the latest must-have kids’ accessory. “All the girls in my class have got one,” nine-year-old Tasya guilt-trips her mother, Zhenya. Manufactured by a mysterious corporation called Nannyland, Shhmoochies come in blingily decorated cases (“Galaxy Gold,” “Magic Castle”), preloaded with interactive games. Parents are warned to expect some obsession: “Within the first few days after purchase a strong mental bond forms between the child and Shhmoochie. This bond does not harm your offspring. On the contrary it helps improve their physical, mental, and psychological health.” As a feminist single mother, Zhenya wants her daughter to feel loved and empowered. Her principles and her instincts revolt at the glitzy pink Shhmoochie she eventually buys, but Tasya’s delight makes the moral surrender worthwhile. Unfortunately, purchasing the Shhmoochie triggers gradual, irreversible change: as in Fever Dream, the mother-child rescue distance has been unintentionally exceeded. Soon Tasya’s behavior changes, in-class Shhmoochie immersion replaces teaching, and Zhenya’s life oddly comes to resemble a computer simulation. Zhenya decides to smash her daughter’s tablet. But Tasya’s bond with the device is already profound: damaging it causes a coma that almost kills the child. Tasya recovers only after the Shhmoochie has been restarted and repaired at Zhenya’s expense. The staff at Nannyland are inhumanly indifferent, reiterating that “[t]he product cannot be returned.” Part parody of consumerist iPad-upmanship, part keenly felt portrait of a self-doubting single mother, “Shhmoochie” ends with Zhenya’s acquiescence: for the sake of Tasya, or what used to be Tasya, she allows the alien tablet to rewire her family’s reality.


The kentukis of Schweblin’s 2018 novel Little Eyes (released in 2020 in an English translation by Megan McDowell, and longlisted for the Booker International Prize that year) are also trendy toys, but not just for children. These adorably cute remote-controlled devices come in a range of animal shapes, each equipped with a remotely operated audio sensor and camera lens. Well-meaning relatives, enthusiastic faddists, and sentimental solitaries buy kentukis as companions for themselves, their friends, lovers, children, even their elderly parents. A kentuki owner is called a Keeper; those who purchase the expensive camera login codes, randomly but permanently matched to a unique device, are known as Dwellers. Every kentuki depends on its Keeper for attention, entertainment, and power supply; every Keeper exposes their lives to the anonymous eyes and ears of the Dweller behind the camera link-up. Keeper and Dweller theoretically can’t trace each other without mutual agreement. Clearly, this delicate balance of nurture and abuse is ripe for exploitation by either side; yet it is remarkable how invariably the kentuki pairings in the novel’s multiple parallel plots collapse into worst-case scenarios. Some Dwellers only connect to their kentukis for seconds before the Keepers destroy the devices. Long-lasting connections rarely fare better. An isolated elderly lady, gifted a Dweller password by her absent son, is cruelly humiliated online after overinvesting emotionally in her Keeper, whom she saw as a surrogate daughter. A divorced man struggling to keep custody of his son is coerced into buying the child an emotional-support kentuki; surprised and touched by the device’s affectionate behavior, he gradually starts treating it as a confidant, even a co-parent. But the Dweller in his son’s kentuki is a pedophile who exploits the father to spend time with the child. A cynical woman systematically teases and tortures her kentuki, unaware that the Dweller behind the lens is a sensitive little boy. Little Eyes warns us about the ubiquity of evil: the kentukis are neither provocations nor channels for cruel behavior; they simply expose society’s endemic estrangement, the miscommunications that beget cruelty and suffering. As elsewhere in these two authors’ fictions, fantastic contrivances ultimately prove how effectively characters (and readers) are already terrorized by sheer banality. 


Given their compelling shared aesthetic, it is regrettable that Schweblin and Starobinets do not enjoy equal recognition in the Anglophone world. Schweblin’s reputation is rising, whereas Starobinets’s appears to have plateaued. The issue may be visibility: Schweblin’s fiction was launched in English by the ambitious publisher Oneworld and quickly championed by reviewers, while Starobinets has published her English translations with smaller independent presses, like Hesperus and Skyscraper. Schweblin has just one English-language translator (Megan McDowell), while Starobinets has worked with at least four, if we include her 2018 memoir of a late-term medical abortion, Look at Him (released in 2020 in an English translation by Katherine E. Young). Most of Schweblin’s backlist has been translated into English; the same cannot be said of Starobinets, although four of the latter’s series of children’s fantasy titles, including the excellent Catlantis, have recently been published in Jane Bugaeva’s English translation.


Alternatively, these discrepancies in reception may relate to how authors are categorized by region and language. Schweblin has many young, experimental Latin American peers, such as the Chilean novelist Lina Meruane (whose 2012 fable of blindness and sexuality, Seeing Red, was also translated by Megan McDowell) and her fellow Argentinian, Agustina Bazterrica, whose 2017 novel Tender Is the Flesh (released in 2020 in an English translation by Sarah Moses) depicts a world where cannibalism is the new capitalism. Starobinets, by contrast, has predecessors rather than peers. If we omit the usual 19th-century suspects (Gogol and Pushkin), her obvious forebears are Lyudmila Petrushevskaya (whose contemporary chernukha, or dark realism, Starobinets transmutes into fables of mutation and deformity), Vladimir Sorokin’s absurdist shock fiction, and even Tatyana Tolstaya’s postapocalyptic dystopia, The Slynx (2000). New kid on the block Alla Gorbunova aside, few other Russian women authors are writing urban horror fiction today. Thus, Starobinets comes with a genealogy of influence rather than a cohort of influencers, and perhaps this makes her stories more challenging for Anglophone audiences. 


Yet the originality and urgency that her best fiction shares with the best of Schweblin’s make clear that both women’s fictional metamorphoses shadow our future, not our past. Our century is shaped by the birth of new technologies as we are shaped by new technologies of birth. And thus, the nightmares of Schweblin and Starobinets, although dreamed on opposite sides of the globe, speak to all of us.


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Muireann Maguire teaches Russian literature and language at the University of Exeter. Her research interests include the history of Russian-to-English literary translation, 19th-century Russian literature, and the representation of pregnancy and childbirth in fiction.