Marisa Silver’s fourth novel, Little Nothing, is a marvelous book. I mean “marvelous” in the this-critic-approves sense, sure: Her command of character, style, and storytelling is expert and sustained. But I also mean it in the sense of being full of marvels: Its story is suffused with magic, lycanthropy, circuses, and cliffhanger incidents of good luck and bad. We’re already awash in stories like this, especially at the multiplex, where we’re dazzled to be distracted. Silver, however, grasps that the best stories dazzle us to guide us to a deeper sense of being. “Sometimes this life is hard to believe,” muses one character, and Silver’s most impressive accomplishment is that her hard-to-believe incidents feel as stark and clear as thunderbolts.
To put this more simply: It’s a fairy tale. Its hero, Pavla, is a girl born in a rural town in an imaginary Balkans-ish place — the midwife who delivers her speaks Slovak, though all we know for certain is that the homeland is “routinely tossed back and forth between sovereign empires as a consolation prize for greater losses.” She is born a dwarf, much to her parents’ despair, and their despair means her childhood is stockpiled with cruelties, not least the doctor who recommends she be half-buried in the ground and exposed to hot oil treatments that theoretically would, “in combination with the moist earth, cause her skin to become elastic.”
Between the burns she suffers from that foolishness and the useless and brutal rack she is placed upon by her doctor — real-world medical quackery, both mental and physical, is the dark magic in this tale — Pavla has little choice but to use her damage and difference to her advantage, joining a circus to support her family. There, she has transformed from a small but pretty girl to a tall young woman but with wolfish features. From Jeckyll and Hyde to Twilight, werewolves have been symbols of humanity’s high and low, cultivation and ferality. Silver offers a more provocative spin: As Wolf Girl, Pavla is all low, “the synthesis of two things men have a need to routinely destroy: animals and women.” And when the circus keeper attempts to assault her, Pavla fights back by becoming fully wolfish.
That scene, like much of the novel, is constructed out of viscera and damage. War, explosions, gunfire, imprisonment, and abuse are all part of Little Nothing‘s milieu — Pavla is in a hunter’s sights more than once. But Silver’s grim backgrounding — the stuff of contemporary serious novels — is braided with and softened by the once-upon-a-time tone Silver uses to depict it. Terrible things happen, but her avuncular style (“When most people hear of a dwarf, they imagine court jesters or circus clowns . . . “) suggests that these terrible things are in service of a fable of transformation that accommodates uplift alongside its tragic turns.
Such a tone can risk making Pavla’s plights seem absurd, or minor — rubbery G-rated characters are forever getting out of scrapes at the multiplex, with kindly narrators holding kids’ hands through them. But Silver fully inhabits the fairy tale’s mission to speak to “the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless, the love of life, and the fear of death,” as Bruno Bettelheim wrote in his landmark 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment. Anybody who knows the Grimm Brothers’ original tales, where Little Red Riding Hood is devoured and Cinderella’s stepsisters mutilate their feet to fit in that glass slipper, knows that “grown-up fairy tale” can be a redundancy. That’s the spirit of Little Nothing; the upside of Pavla’s journey is less about the childhood fantasy of triumphantly conquering enemies than the grown-up work of conquering her internal fears.
She’s not alone in her labors. Following Pavla is Danilo, the doctor’s assistant who once strapped her to that miserable table but then fell in love with her. Though he remains stubbornly human, he’s awash in symbolism, too — he is the hunter, the outcast, the man who is missing his twin brother, a good man wrongly accused of madness. As Silver pairs his story with Pavla’s, she suggests that her physical transformation and his mental and social difference are two sides of the same coin. What Pavla feels internally is what Danilo receives externally from the war, and from his awareness that there is more to the world than his simple upbringing: “It is possible to become new.”
Fairy tales essentialize the world, package them into straightforward conflicts that, as Bettelheim suggested, make our emotional seas navigable to us. But they can also crack open the everyday, infuse it with a host of mysteries of shape-shifting and magic and change and unfairness. In Pavla and Danilo, Silver invents a pair who encompass that narrowness and widening, merging the realist-novel assertion that we are functions of our circumstances and the magical-marvelous assertion that we become more when we look beyond those circumstances. “The obvious question is the wrong question,” Danilo thinks at one point. “And that to interpret the world by way of its most available and reasonable clues will only lead him further down the narrow path that has, thus far, defined his existence.” Little Nothing is steeped in strangeness, but it’s driven by a basic question that frees the best novels and their heroes when the time comes to explore their worlds: What if there’s something else out there?