“The Size of Things”
by Samanta Schweblin
translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
from the May 29, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s 2014 novel Fever Dream, which Lee reviewed here, is currently on the Man Booker International Prize shortlist, the winner of which is to be announced on June 14. I haven’t read the book yet, so it’s nice to get a sense of what this relatively-new-to-English author is up to with this week’s New Yorker story.

Schweblin has published four novels since her 2002 debut, El núcleo del disturbio. Though a few of her stories had been translated into English (see, for example, “My Parents and My Children,” translated by Kit Maude, here), Fever Dream, her third, was her first novel to come out in English, and I’m confident more is on its way.

I’m curious to see what you all will think of her work here! Please join in the conversation below.

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By |2017-06-16T22:00:18+00:00May 22nd, 2017|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Samanta Schweblin|Tags: |20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. David May 22, 2017 at 11:46 am

    I just read the story and am going to hold off commenting on it for now. I want to read the other story you linked to first and also would like to hear what Lee might have to say about this one, especially how he thinks it might compare to the more recent novel.

  2. Dennis Lang May 24, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    Heck of a story! I imagine one can interpret it however they choose and the author left the door open for just that sort of speculating.
    Personally, I think there’s still a happy, precocious seven year-old in all of us that occasionally screams to be set free–from adulthood and the mandate it imposes. To be taken care of, innocent, with all creative potential and possibility ahead of us.
    Looking forward to reading “Fever Dream”.

  3. Trevor Berrett May 24, 2017 at 7:59 pm

    David, I think Lee is on holiday for the next bit, but he is anxious to weigh in.

    Dennis, I’m so glad you enjoyed the story so much! I still haven’t, ahem, read it . . . I’ve been such a terrible host of this party, but I’m glad you all feel comfortable here and carry out the great conversations anyway!

  4. Dennis Lang May 24, 2017 at 11:34 pm

    Hah! Trevor, the best hosts set all the action in motion and quietly slip away to the bar and the avocado dip.
    Nice work!

  5. Lee Monks May 25, 2017 at 11:27 am

    David: Yet more hopeless, abject male figures! I see a pattern emerging…

    I liked the story, for what it was. Dennis: I think you’re right, that this can be read in any number of ways. As with Fever Dream it’s interested in parenthood, once again focusing somewhat on the precarious balance between authoritarianism and a more ‘hands-off’ approach. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that here’s a miserable ‘kidult’ between two much stronger female polarities. Might just be me…

  6. David May 26, 2017 at 11:04 am

    There you are, Lee! While I was waiting for your return I did my own independent research. After reading “The Size of Things” and “My Parents and My Children” I did a google search and found six more of her short stories translated into English and published online. Only one was behind a paywall, but it was published in Granta so I was able to get that from my local library. In reading these stories, I see a few patterns emerge.
    .
    I would divide the stories into two groups. First, there are stories where the narrator describes a situation where he (the narrators in this group are all male) must deal with a very peculiar person. In “My Parents and My Children” the narrator’s parents are acting in a very bizarre way, in “Birds In The Mouth” it is the narrator’s daughter, in “The Digger” is it a man digging a hole for no apparent reason, and then there is this story. The second group of stories are ones where the situations themselves rather than the characters are peculiar. In “To Kill a Dog” a man must kill a stray dog to prove he has what it takes to join a criminal gang, in “The Preserves” a pregnant woman decides she wants to reverse the pregnancy process, in “Father Christmas” a young boy witnesses his parents psychological and marital troubles, but because he is very young he does not understand what is going on, and in “Olingiris” we are told about a very strange business and two women who work there. There are other patterns to her stories as well. The theme of parent-child relationships is quite central in six of the eight stories (“The Size of Things”, “My Parents and My Children”, “Birds In The Mouth”, “The Preserves”, “Father Christmas”, and “Olingiris”) and divorce or disintegrating marriages are central to half of those (“My Parents and My Children”, “Birds In The Mouth”, and “Father Christmas”).
    .
    I also found an interview with Schweblin where she names Kafka, Beckett, Buzzati, and Dostoyevsky as the authors she read that made her want to become a writer. The influence of those four on her should be very obvious. She also lists Hemingway, O’Connor, Faulkner, Ballard, Salinger, Donleavy, Cheever, Vonnegut, and Yates as later influences. Between those two lists she names five of my favourite authors, so it should not be a surprise I quite like her work. I have already ordered Fever Dream and am very much looking forward to seeing what she can do in a longer form.

  7. Dennis Lang May 26, 2017 at 3:17 pm

    Sure, resonances with Kafka and Beckett, and for anyone ancient enough to remember the old “Twilight Zone” TV series with its peculiar tales, metaphorical undercurrents, and plot-twisting ironies, the perfect episode!!
    I can picture it. We meet Duvel in the first scene cruising around “self-absorbed” in his convertible. He re-enters childhood–of course the toy store–adopts surrogate parents, experiences this explosion of youthful creativity–“his great rainbow”. But, resisting adulthood doesn’t stop there safely in childhood. No, he regresses to infantilism, all the way to the stunning last shot: “I saw his little fingers trying to pull away from his mother’s as she, furious, leaned down to pick him up.”
    Super!

  8. William May 28, 2017 at 5:11 pm

    In the pageturner interview the interviewer mentions “benjamin button” by fitzgerald. So i read it. Great story. Not sure schweblin adds anything to it, except maybe contemporary social issues and toys. F’s story timeless, S’s topical.

  9. William May 29, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    Several times people have complained on this website that the NYer no longer publishes good short fiction. I can’t go back and compare stories published in the last couple of years with stories published in prior decades. So I took a simpler approach. I reasoned that, if it is true that the NYer doesn’t publish good short fiction, there could be two explanations:

    One, Good fiction is no longer being written.

    Or —

    Two, the best fiction is being published elsewhere.

    So, I did a simple experiment. I took George Saunders’ recent story collection, “The Tenth of December”, and divided the stories into two groups: those I liked (i.e., “good” stories) and those that I didn’t like so much (i.e., “bad” stories). Then I asked where the stories had been published. All 5 “good” stories had been published in the NYer. Two of the five “bad” stories had been published in the NYer, three elsewhere (Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Short Story). In retrospect, one of the “bad” stories was actually good but just didn’t appeal to me.

    Conclusion: With regard to George Saunders, the NYer is publishing the best short fiction.
    Corollary: Any dearth of good short fiction in the NYer is not due to the best fiction being published elsewhere.

    Thus ends experiment 1 of this investigation.

  10. Dennis Lang May 29, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    Hey William–Love the experiment!
    Speaking of experiments, I like the one, I think conducted by grad students in the U of Columbia MFA program (but I may have that wrong). They were out to see how fickle editors of literary journals are in the short fiction submissions they publish.
    So, considering the NYer the accepted paragon of taste in these matters they picked a previously published NYer story that had achieved common domain status on the internet and submitted it to about two dozen journals.
    Of course rejected by each one. Then they sent it to the NYer–and, guess what?–of course they passed on it also.
    Proving what? Well, a couple thoughts. It’s a crap shoot to get published. And, taste–the good and the bad– can be in the mind of the reader at the moment they read the story.
    Happy Memorial Day All!

  11. William May 29, 2017 at 5:07 pm

    Nice story, Dennis. Crap shoot, indeed.

  12. David May 29, 2017 at 5:39 pm

    William, I am not one who has complained that The New Yorker ain’t what it used to be, but I like your idea of testing the claim. I think, however, your methodology is flawed here. I recently wrote a comment about Alice Munro where I noted that one of her stories (“Jesse and Meribeth”) was rejected by The New Yorker, then rejected by a second magazine, then finally published in Mademoiselle. Her pattern was that she offered stories to The New Yorker first and then if they rejected something would seek publication elsewhere. That pattern would make it quite likely that her best work would appear in The New Yorker and her lesser work elsewhere. If Saunders, who has published most of his work in The New Yorker, does a similar thing, which it seems likely he does, then the results would be biased.
    .
    Here is a more labour intensive, but better idea of how to test the theory. Pick several different publications that regularly publish high quality short stories. I would suggest that Granta and The Paris Review would be good choices. Read all the stories published in each over an entire year (say, 2016) and then make a list of the best stories from all three publications. From that you can see how well stories in The New Yorker compare to the other two publications and see who publishes the best work overall, regardless of author. If reading that much requires too much work (and who could blame you?) you might pick, say, ten stores from each publication selected at rndom from over the course of a year’s worth of stories. Thirty stories might be a more viable number to read and might be enough to see if there is any trend of which publication fares best.
    .
    Of course, we could always just ask someone who complains that The New Yorker ain’t what it used to be to do the work for us. Because if they can’t tell us where the good stories really are now, then maybe it’s just all crankiness.

  13. William May 29, 2017 at 9:54 pm

    David –

    Thanks for those thoughts. I especially like the way your elegant diction ends with the word “crankiness”. It reminded me of a time 7 years ago when we were in Banff eating in a casual dining room in the lodge. The servers were all young women, probably doing summer jobs. One was complaining about something and another said, “Oooh – sounds like someone’s wearing her cranky pants.”

    I don’t think my experiment was flawed or biased so much as severely limited. Your delightful story about Alice Munro fits right in with my conclusion, I think – the NYer gets the pick of the stories and (in the best of all possible worlds) selects the cream. In the case of George Saunders, I satisfied myself that this hypothesis was true. If we wanted to explore this idea with regard to Alice Munro, we would have to do a similar survey – take one of her collections and rate the stories, then see where each was published. Since Trevor and Betsy are working their way through “Progress of Love”, I’ll leave that task to them. (A good leader knows how to delegate.) By the way – the Munro story that was published in Mademoiselle – have you read it? Do you think it is good?

    I like your suggestion for a more thorough experiment. I might do it.

    That story about Munro also suggests some other interesting questions. Do writers not know which of their stories are their best? Or perhaps they aren’t able to predict the editors’ decisions? Do writers and editors have different valuations? Now there is an intriguing experiment – give some writers and some editors a batch of stories and have them rate them. Is it all arbitrary in the end? In that case, what are we doing with our comments?

    I did a different kind of experiment with two recent volumes of the Best Short Stories of the year (2013 and 2015, I think). I liked 7 of the stories in one collection and 6 in the other, as I recall (I don’t have the books with me right now). Maybe 5 of the 13 had been published in the NYer (out of a total of perhaps 8 stories from the NYer in the two collections). All the others were published in a variety of magazines – Granta, Paris Review, Tin House, etc. One interpretation of these data is that neither I nor the selectors of the annual best short stories think that all of the stories published in the NYer are good or that all good stories are published in the NYer. That makes sense. I think it would be fun to go back to all the NYers for those two years and see if I thought that any stories published in the NYer but not included in the best stories were better than the ones from other publications that were included. That’s doable.

    In a different vein, we can look at the stories of Adam Johnson, who won the Pulitzer a few years ago for “The Orphan Master’s Son” and subsequently published a collection of 6 stories under the title “Fortune Smiles”. None of these would have been considered by the NYer since they are all 30 -50 pp long. Of the 4 stories that I like, two were published in Tin House, one in Esquire and one hand-printed. The two “bad” ones were published in Harper’s and Tin House.

  14. Dennis Lang May 30, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    I’m still hung up on any contributor’s preoccupation with “good and bad” Is it necessary? If you were inclined to proffer such judgment, what would it mean beyond your own predispositions? Some time ago–I think responding an Emma Cline story– someone wrote in his first sentence: “This is a piece of s**t!” Setting the bar high for pretentious self-indulgence.

    In contrast:

    Read how beautifully Trevor and Betsy write about the Monroe story. It’s with love and understanding. It’s like this:

    “Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing to be so little appreciated as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and fairly judge them.”

    — Rainer Maria Rilke

  15. David May 30, 2017 at 3:23 pm

    Dennis, you seem to think we should like everything and only say positive things about stories. You seem to be perpetually mystified that others (just about everyone else) do not see the world this way. I don’t need to ask what the colour of the sky is in your world because I already know – everything is rose coloured.
    .
    Betsy and Trevor write the things they did about the Munro stories because that is how they see those stories. But don’t be fooled into thinking they think everything should be praised. You can easily find lots of reviews from them on this blog that are quite critical as well. In fact, Trevor has explained that he stopped writing long reviews every week (as he used to do) and often does not even read New Yorker stories because he has generally found it far less rewarding that it was before.
    .
    You also mistake saying nice things about a story with “love” and “understanding”. It is neither. If a story is awful, then understanding it is to know it is awful. You can feel sorry for an author who has written badly and be “understanding” in that sense, but if the work is bad it’s bad. You also seem to misunderstand the Rilke quotation you gave. He wrote that in the context of advice to writers about how to improve – to become better writers. He does not mean “love” in the sense of “admire”. He means “love” the way parents might love their children and want them to be the best people they can be. This is why he talks about how you can “fairly judge” work. Fair, yes, but also judge.
    .
    Two sentences later, Rilke has advice for what a writer should expect to happen if their judgement is “wrong” (his word). Rilke talks about loving your work so you can truly see its value and its faults, not so that you praise everything and never talk about what is good or bad. He is, in fact, trying to help artists to make precisely those judgments as accurately as possible. For him, loving your work means being willing to stick with it when it is bad and working with it to make it better. The way a parent who loves a wayward child might. The parent does not throw up their hands and say “what is good or bad behaviour, really?” and suggest we just stop talking about it. The parents who love their children will see them for who they are, the good and the bad, and because of love want to make them better people. That’s what he’s talking about here.
    .
    I love great writing. I wish all writing were great writing. But it isn’t. There is nothing wrong with saying that or in specific cases of bad writing to say that it’s bad. Talking about what writing is good and what writing is bad is a part of loving literature. Uncritically liking and praising everything is not. It’s a great qualification for a job as a hype man or a yes man, but of little value otherwise. If I want to read uncritical praise for writing, I’ll go to publishers’ websites. I’d rather hear honest, thoughtful, intelligent discussion of writing, whether complimentary, critical, or somewhere in between. That’s what Trevor gives. It’s what Betsy gives. Others here give that too. And it’s what I always try to give. I don’t see what there is to be mystified about that.

  16. Dennis Lang June 2, 2017 at 9:05 pm

    I get this is off the beaten track, but if any of you have read “Fever Dream” would love to read what Mookse contributors thought of it.
    Personally, I can’t recall a novel in years I’ve found so mesmerizing. Not just it’s disturbing content, but the narrative shape of it, the momentum of it. Amazing!
    Thanks.

  17. Trevor Berrett June 3, 2017 at 2:07 am

    There’s not a lot of discussion about this particular title over at the Mookse Goodreads group, but what we have is good. Here is the link! Help merge the two Mookse worlds!

  18. Dennis Lang June 3, 2017 at 8:57 am

    Super!! Thanks Trevor!

  19. Greg June 4, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    Thank you David, William and Dennis for opening my mind to many aspects of this story and literature in general. Every week I learn so much from you three!

    This theme of a grown man struggling to gain independence from his mother reminded me of the following two items:

    1) Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. Roger Waters thoughtfully explored the unhealthy power a mother has over her son.

    2) Roger Ebert in his autobiography before he died shamefully admitted that he didn’t do some things he truly wanted to do in his life out of fear of his mother’s judgment.

  20. William June 4, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    Thanks for that compliment, Greg. And thanks for those two anecdotes. Powerful. We all learn from each other.

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