The new collection is impressive, but it lacks the finish of “Fever Dream.” It contains three perfect stories (“Headlights,” “Mouthful of Birds,” “Toward Happy Civilization”), three stinkers and a handful of exploratory sketches. There’s a feeling of peeking into Schweblin’s notebook, of watching her early experiments with technique (this book was originally published before the novel). She can be oblique, as in “Slowing Down,” a story about aging (I think?), then blunt, as in “Heads Against Concrete,” with its opening line: “If you pound a person’s head against concrete — even if you’re doing it only so they’ll come to their senses — you will very likely end up hurting them.”
These stories spiral into their own circles of madness, but they all belong to the same universe. Odd plot points repeat: mysterious holes in the ground, violence to animals, violence to children, violence to children disguised as animals. They begin in barren landscapes, on empty plains and steppes, on interrupted journeys. There are grotesque parodies of family life (a pair of kidnappers treat their prisoners with the loving pride of parents), parodies of work (a woman’s job requires her to lie facedown on a table and have her leg hair ritually plucked away by six beauticians). The desperate desire to bear children recurs but so too does ambivalence, even revulsion. One woman decides she does not want to be pregnant and wills her belly to shrink and shrink until she finally spits out the baby — “the size of an almond” — into a jar, to wait for the future. Maybe.
The clearest line of continuity is in the dialogue, in how the characters communicate — or don’t, rather. There are strains of Beckett and Pinter in the way Schweblin’s people use so many words to say so little. They have a fondness for digging holes in the ground, to hide in, and they use language to the same effect.
This is to say nothing of the perverse ways people speak to themselves. In the title story, a man discovers that his teenage daughter has taken to eating live pet birds. He is repulsed when he catches her at it for the first time, when he hears the bird scream and sees her bloodstained mouth smiling in shy apology. But he quickly begins explaining it away to himself: “I thought about how, considering there are people who eat people, eating live birds wasn’t so bad. Also, from a natural point of view it was healthier than drugs, and from a social one, it was easier to hide than a pregnancy at 13.” Schweblin’s characters constantly talk themselves out of their perceptions, out of reality.
Schweblin herself stopped talking when she was 12 years old. She has said she was overwhelmed by the gulf between what she wanted to say and what she thought people could understand. The school principal required a doctor’s note testifying that she was normal in order for her to continue with classes. A psychotherapist complied, stating that she was extremely normal but had a “complete disinterest” in the world around her.