Silver’s novel blunders
AS WE HURTLE toward a presidential election that seems stranger than fiction, most of us could probably use a little escapism. What better way to get away from the stress and increasing feelings of dread than to curl up with a novel and a nice cup of tea until Nov. 8th has come and gone? My candidate for this was the newest release of lauded author Marisa Silver, Little Nothing, whose back cover promised me romance, carnivals, and absolutely no politics.
I had very high hopes for this book. After all, it’s set in Eastern Europe (sort of), it’s magical realism, and most of it is set in the wilderness. It’s the story of a girl, Pavla, who is born very small and transformed by a series of doctors in an ultimately vain attempt to make her a suitable candidate for marriage. Permanently altered and unable to return to her normal life, she joins a travelling theatre and is pursued by an ardent lover, turning all the while into someone unrecognizable.
There’s something appealing about the logic of this book, or rather its lack of logic: here, if you stretch a girl with dwarfism on a rack, she’ll become a normal-sized woman with a wolf’s face, and eventually a wolf. An early villain with the name Dr. Smetanka is ominous, not patently ridiculous. In most novels, this would feel abrupt and out of place; but if there’s one thing Little Nothing does really well, it’s building atmosphere. The town where we begin is full of stories of monsters, kings, and endless wars, all told in its own particular language and with appropriately grisly detail. The woods Pavla eventually flees into feel appropriately ominous, but they also burst with plant and animal life in beautiful detail.
In terms of atmosphere, one immediate comparison is Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (which Lewis & Clark recently acquired several drafts of, among other writings of hers). But the major difference between the two is that the focus of Dunn’s book is an almost obsessive appreciation of difference. The narrator, Olympia, has been taught to view her small stature as the one thing that makes her unique, a conflict which resurfaces in disturbing ways and leads to a deeply intriguing, if haunting, conclusion. In contrast, not only does Little Nothing fail to adequately develop Pavla’s character, it sets up her struggles with her changing body and the horrors it brings as an external conflict rather than an internal one. The reactions Pavla gets might change from ridicule to fear, but through it all there’s very little mention of her own feelings about her changing body, and the changing prospects it brings.
There are a lot of interesting characters here, each with their own fears, agendas, and personalities, whether it’s the unironic hopefulness of love interest Danilo or the brutal charm of soldiers Ivan and Jiri, who don’t get nearly enough screen time. Pavla, however, is much less compelling. The difficulty I had ever completely sympathizing with her was made worse by the fact that the novel switches focus in its latter half to Danilo and his quest to find Pavla, and it never gets completely back on track.
There’s a scene in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the arguable magnum opus of an author whose representations of women are uneven at best, that reminds me of what this novel struggles with. The main character, Stephen, discovers his calling for poetry in a single confused moment, when he sees a woman swimming and decides that he urgently needs to compare her to a bird. He starts with a trope as old as literature– think of the Crane Wife, the Swan Maiden, Philomel — and he runs too far with it, until he’s describing crane legs and feathered breasts, emblems of female beauty taken to ridiculous extremes. Silver never goes so far, even when Pavla becomes the novel’s object rather than its driving force. However, there is still a sense that our experience of her transformation as readers is not through her as a human; it’s her as a symbol, yet again.
It strikes me that, in the midst of this election season and all the deeply-rooted sexism it’s exposed, this is a good problem to keep in mind. It’s a reminder of how easy it is to excuse objectification in both literature and in politics, whether we’re doing it in the name of art or in pursuit of higher office.
Maybe it’s not so escapist after all.