In ‘Little Nothing’, Marisa Silver has created something startlingly original and thoroughly enjoyable. The novel reads like a fairytale, featuring magic, forests, wolves, symbolism, morals, and so on. Infact, it is a fairytale, albeit one infused with pervasive morbidity and a violence that is largely martial but sometimes sexual. Silver’s story would belong in Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979), a collection of traditional fairytales perverted by adult themes. ‘Little Nothing’ revels in the bodily and the grotesque, cultivating a modern gothic that frequently shifts between the ethereal and the vulgar.
For instance: writing of a man disemboweled by a bomb blast, Silver refers to the spilled-out ‘sausage of his guts’. In pregnancy, Agáta’s belly becomes ‘striped like a zebra’s as her flesh stretches and pulls’. The ‘bosoms’ of the village nurse, Judita, are ‘long and heavy as giant zucchinis’. The novelist expresses a zeal for the discordant simile and metaphor that vibrantly colours her writing.
Original in her setting as she is in her story, Silver locates her narrative ‘in an unnamed country at the beginning of the last century’ (so says the blurb). The vigilant reader will recognize that the novel is almost certainly based in Czechoslovakia, a nation that declared independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War One.
‘Little Nothing’ by Marisa Silver, published 13th September 2016
‘Little Nothing’ charts the life of Pavla, a girl born with dwarfism into an extremely intolerant and superstitious society. Her otherness horrifies even her parents, Agáta and Václav, whose attempts to force Pavla’s body into normality are as hideous as they are ineffectual. Searing skin oil and medieval stretching racks are barbaric techniques masquerading as medicinal and physiological cures for Pavla’s condition. However, it is ultimately the supernatural that instigates the first of her several transformations, which attain lycanthropic qualities.
The rather sudden introduction of magic to ‘Little Nothing’ risks having a polarizing effect upon readers. There are always readers who refuse to co-operate with the suspension of disbelief that a writer of fantastical fiction regularly demands. Indeed, you will find several reviews of this novel on Goodreads whose writers discuss their loss of interest in the story once the paranormal emerges. But, crucially, the narrative becomes so energized by Silver’s injection of the supernatural; the question of skepticism feels irrelevant when the vigour and allure of the novel benefit so greatly.
With exquisitely measured prose, often acquiring a rhythmic quality, Silver narrates the two strands of her story: the trials of Pavla and the torment of Danilo, a young man who loves Pavla and knows what nobody else will believe. As Pavla becomes not only an object of freakish wonder but also of sexual desire, Danilo develops his affection. He struggles with it, understandably. After all, Pavla is ‘the synthesis of two things men have a need to routinely destroy: animals and women’. The pair of lovers are divided not by the traditional literary fixtures of feuding families or a class divide, but simply because one of them becomes an animal.
Silver evokes the work of Franz Kafka in her writing, not through the sense of labyrinthine or disorienting situations, but simply through her portrayal of human-to-animal metamorphosis. Transformation is beyond Pavla’s control as it is Gregor Samsa’s. Silver rather knowingly signals the coming of Pavla’s Kafkaesque metamorphosis well before its occurrence in her description of the village nurse, Judita, and the horribly cold feelings Judita has for the baby Pavla. For Judita, Pavla’s appearance is repulsive and so the nurse begins to reject the child’s very humanity. Judita sees her as a mouse, then as a rat, and then ‘by the third [month]’ Pavla is Judita’s ‘little cockroach, a freakish, thumb-sized enemy’. A cockroach: the very creature Samsa becomes in the opening paragraph of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ (1915).
Marisa Silver, currently living in L.A.
Silver’s echoing of Kafka becomes particularly fitting when one considers the novel’s Czech setting. Kafka was born in Prague and spent most of his short life there. In the final third of ‘Little Nothing’, Silver takes us to an anonymous city that is almost certainly Prague. She gets as close as she can to the Astronomical Clock, the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle without ever naming them.
Alongside the personal experiences of Pavla and Danilo, the novelist explores wider issues. We are regularly confronted by the human capacity for cruelty, which is presented in a deeply affecting way. From war-town towns and troubled households to asylums and prisons, the propensity in people to inflict harm upon others manifests itself in varied and terrible ways. But compassion is also an inherent human quality, sitting alongside man’s darker elements, and Silver recognises this. Characters who are forced into committing acts of cruel violence struggle with their conscience, and the author portrays this internal contest between duty and sympathy with beautiful sensitivity.
One particular aspect of ‘Little Nothing’ that contributes so much to the novel’s idiosyncrasy is its focus upon such old and obscure industry. As Jason Arthur recently urged on The Millions, we need more novels about work. Silver represents the early 20th-century Czech plumbing and sewage industry on both a rural and urban scale, illuminating the obscure and grimy work undertaken by long-forgotten men with a keen attention to detail. For Václav, the installation of the domestic flush is revolutionary. He knows he works in a secure industry because ‘everyone shits once a day. Sometimes twice, if they’re lucky’. In Prague, ‘watermen’ must carve tunnels beneath the city through the use of dynamite. The author renders something so mundane and unclean a deeply interesting part of her novel.
This is Silver’s genius: she finds something fresh and original in the indigence and sewage of one hundred years ago, far from her homeland of America. Her narrative remains fresh and engaging from beginning to end because, in the Dickensian way, it shifts between characters so regularly.
‘Little Nothing’ is knocking on the door at the pantheon of gothic fiction, boasting a wonderful mix of literary influences and telling a story that is quite unforgettable.