Five stars, read in April 2016.
After reading his interview with the Paris Review, I knew I wanted to start tracking down Wallace Shawn’s work. I was so surprised by the connection I felt with his ideas in that interview, and it was the same with The Fever. It was written as a kind of one-act play, meant to be performed by one person for small groups in living rooms, and now that I’ve read it I can imagine how excruciating that experience would be. Which is, of course, the point.
I have never—and you almost certainly haven’t either—heard the conflict of class, race, and wealth explored so bluntly from this perspective. It’s an examination of how much is just not right in the world, and why it stays that way.
You’re [in a country] far from home. To you, [the beggar’s] simple shawl seems elegant, direct, the right way to dress. You see her approaching from a great distance. She’s old, thin, and yes, she looks sick, very sick, near death. But her face is beautiful—seductive, luminous. You like her—you’re drawn to her. Yes, you think—there’s money in your purse—you’ll give her some of it.
And a voice says—why not all of it? Why not give her all that you have?
Be careful, that’s a question that could poison your life . . .
Answer the question, don’t just stand there. I can’t give the beggar all that I have, because I—
Wait a minute. Wait a minute. There’s a reason why I won’t give the beggar all of my money. Yes, I’m going to give her some of it—I always give away quite a surprising amount to people who have less than I do—But there’s a reason why I’m the one who has the money in the first place, and that’s why I’m not going to give her all of it.
This book is painful and deeply unsettling, and I want to read it again and again. There are only a couple people I could ever recommend it to, because I know most people would just hate it. If you’ve read this far and you feel intrigued rather than turned off, it might be worth it for you.