Book Review: Little Nothing, Marisa Silver (2016)

November 7th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

If you can embrace the weird, this is one lovely and amazing story.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including child abuse and rape.)

Pavla revels in her name because she knows that if nothing is little, then it must be something indeed.

“You’re the one who said all time exists,” Danilo says. “The past exists. The future exists.”

It’s true. She did say this. And she does somehow believe that what has happened to her and what will happen to her exist simultaneously, that the story is already written but not yet told. She must be like someone in one of her mother’s stories who has existed for centuries of telling and will exist even after her mother is gone. How else to explain her life? As something random?

“I’m sorry it has taken so long for us to come,” he hears himself say.

Pavla Janáček is born at the turn of the century in a rural village located in a small, unnamed (but likely Slavic) country. She arrives in the twilight of her parents’ lives: after much trying and four miscarriages, mother Agáta finally enlisted the help a “gypsy.” She believes that Pavla’s “condition” is a punishment from God for her blasphemy. Pavla is born a dwarf, with a head that’s too large for her torso and arms and legs that are disproportionately short.

The chilly reception Pavla initially receives from Agáta gradually warms and deepens, as mother and daughter are forced into close proximity by the harsh winter weather. With spring comes love; Pavla is the child Agáta and Václav have always wanted. She ages, but grows precious little; she continues to sleep in her crib for the next fourteen years. She’s a precocious child and a fast learner; she teaches herself to count using the slats on her crib and, when she turns seven, Václav takes her on as his assistant at his plumbing business. She starts school a year later, where her cunning eventually wins over her classmates.

And then Pavla hits puberty and her parents get the foolish notion to “fix” her: for what will happen to their lovely daughter (and Pavla is indeed a beauty, ‘from the neck up’) when they’re gone? They begin dragging her from doctor to doctor, hoping for a miracle cure, until they wind up in the office of the biggest charlatan of them all: Dr. Ignác Smetanka, whose outlandish and cruel “treatments” leaved Pavla scarred, traumatized – and bearing the countenance of a wolf, seemingly overnight. But the transformation from dwarf to (average-sized) wolf-girl won’t be the only metamorphosis Pavla experiences before her story’s ended.

Pavla’s strange journey intersects at multiple points and in unexpected ways with that of Dr. Smetanka’s young assistant Danilo – the clever boy who built the rack that once again made Pavla an object of shame and terror.

Little Nothing is simply breathtaking; easily one of my favorite books of 2016, and there have been some pretty wonderful ones released into the wild this year. The early ratings were all over the place on Goodreads, such that I had no idea what to expect. Two things became obvious to me as I devoured Little Nothing: a) I should never, ever automatically discount a book due to low (<3.75) ratings, because then I might miss out on some real gems; and b) some books just aren't for everyone, and that's okay.  

Some words that come to mind when I think of Little Nothing (and I’ve been thinking on it tons lately): Vulgar. Profane. Weird. Surreal. Beautiful. Shrewd. Penetrating. Fantastical. Lyrical. Nihilistic. Compassionate. Boundaries, The Blurring of. Human, Animal, Vegetable. Wolf girls and girl wolves. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. (That last one’s a book; look it up.)

There are so many layers to Pavla’s story, each one a little more disorienting than the last; levels of weird, I like to think of them. The circumstances of Pavla’s birth are a little out of the ordinary, yet still firmly grounded in reality. This begins to slip away with each transformation. Pavla the wolf-girl is surreal, yet perhaps still scientifically explicable. Pavla the wolf, however, is completely off the fucking rails. Everything that comes next? The stuff of fairy tales.

In fact, Little Nothing feels a lot like a fairy tale – or rather, a whole bunch of them, woven and glued and stitched together such that the tapestry becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. Each disparate setting – Pavla’s village; the carnival she’s traveling with; the countryside she navigates through lupine eyes; the battleground where soldiers fight for independence; a prison for women; a medieval asylum; the underground tunnels of a rapidly modernizing city – could easily sustain its own 350-odd-page book. That Silver is able to condense each tale into a smaller bit, and meld it with other shrunken-yet-still-grand-in-their-own-way bits, while honoring the import of each, is a testament to her skill as a storyteller. Each chapter in the characters’ lives manages to satisfy, while still leaving you wanting for more.

It’s hard to pick a favorite episode; each one turns a mirror back on society, in its own unique way. During her time touring the freak show circuit with Smetanka, she uses the audience’s disquiet against them: by refusing to react to their taunts and aggression, she outs them as the monsters they are. Yet as much as I loved the carnival scenes (I have a thing for stories set in carnivals, okay), Pavla’s transformation into a full-fledged wolf is exquisite (and reminiscent of Emma Geen’s lovely and amazing The Many Selves of Katherine North). Does a mother grieve the loss of a child any less if he is a wolf? If she is?

Of course those scenes set in the asylum and prison are also trenchant AF, revealing the many atrocities that have and do take place within their walls. (“The hole” even goes by the same name, all these decades later.) It’s interesting to note that the treatment that Danilo and Pavla were subjected to was much the same – even though one was a confessed murderer deemed too “crazy” to go to jail; the other, a suspected murder who was imprisoned for her “crimes.” The distinction between institutionalization and imprisonment seems superficial at best.

Silver also does her characters proud, creating people who are flawed and complex and brave – even, on occasion, heroic. Pavla is astonishing, in all her forms – and the many she’s been made to assume give her a rather unique perspective on love and loss, on the nature of life, and everything (or nothing) that comes with it. During the end of her time in prison, “the woman who rarely spoke and whose introversion made her seem practically invisible becomes an object of veneration” among inmates and jailers alike.

“Veneration” just about sums it up.

If you can get past the weirdness – or, better yet, embrace it – Little Nothing is a book that will capture your imagination, along with your breath and heart. This is one amazing story, befitting the “Little Nothing” for whom it’s named.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: YES! The story takes place at the turn of the century in an unnamed (but likely Slavic) country.

After four miscarriages, Agáta Janáček was desperate: she and her husband Václav were by now middle-aged, and their chances of having a child had all but passed. She turned to a “gypsy” for help, and successfully conceived and carried the pregnancy to term. But Pavla – the main character and titular “Little Nothing” – is born a dwarf, with a head that’s too large for her torso and arms and legs that are disproportionately short. At first, Agáta experiences a mix of disgust and indifference toward her child but, as winter sets in and she’s forced to spend more time with Pavla, she falls in love with her daughter.

Pavla is a clever girl; she teaches herself to count using the slats on her crib and, at the age of seven, her father recruits her to help with his plumping business. Because of her small size, Pavla can crawl through tight spaces and map the area for Václav, so he can determine the best way to run new piping. When she begins attending school at the age of eight, she’s well ahead of her classmates, academically speaking. At first Pavla is mocked and shunned but, when her ingenuity saves the day, she’s accepted among her peers. Her nickname (“Little Nothing”), once considered an insult, now marks her as one of the group.

As Pavla starts to near puberty, her facial features change so that she’s considered quite lovely, with a streamlined nose, prominent cheekbones, and lush, golden hair. When she hits fourteen, Agáta and Václav begin to fear for her future: what will become of Pavla when they’re gone (and, presumably, Pavla does not have a husband to care for her)? Pavla’s parents start dragging her from doctor to doctor, looking for a “cure.”

Finally they find the charlatan Dr. Ignác Smetanka, who instructs them to bury Pavla in a hole up to her neck and pipe hot oil into the soil surrounding her. Unsurprisingly, this causes horrible burns and welts all over her body. The next “treatment” involves strapping Pavla to a rack and stretching her body; the pain is so great that she passes out. When Pavla wakes up, she is indeed taller – but she’s also inexplicably developed wolf-like features: hair on her face, a broad face that narrows at the chin, and yellow eyes.

When the village learns what tortures Agáta and Václav subjected Pavla to, the community shuns them; Václav’s plumbing business collapses. Pavla agrees to enter Smetanka’s employ, first as a scientific example of his “treatment” for dwarfism, then as an attraction in a freakshow. Pavla the “wolf girl” agitates the crowd so much that she’s frequently assaulted – sometimes sexually – during her performances. Smetanka even hires a shill from the audience to storm the stage and “unmask” Pavla (thus proving her authenticity in the process).

When an inebriated Smetanka attempts to rape Pavla in the carnival wagon after hours, she fights back, biting him on the neck. This triggers another transformation: Pavla becomes a wolf. She kills and devours Smetanka, and barely manages to escape the mob with her life.

As a wolf (with few memories of her human life), she falls into a pack of three males and becomes pregnant. One pup dies of natural causes; two are shot by the hunter hired for this very purpose (for Pavla and her pack are partial to livestock), and one escapes. The three males, including Pavla’s mate, are killed, while Pavla once again evades her would-be murderers.

About this time, there is a war for independence raging in Pavla’s small country. She encounters two soldiers, the only survivors of a bombing. Jiři lost one leg and soon dies from his injuries. His childhood friend Ivan is distraught, but Pavla sticks by his side, urging the man on even when he wants to give up. Eventually they come to a small cottage; the elderly couple living there agrees to let Ivan and the wolf stay the night. A night turns into days and weeks, but eventually Ivan is discovered; he’s a deserter, and the couples’ neighbors turn him in for the reward. Ivan is captured, put Pavla escapes. When she returns to the couples’ cottage later on, she discovers the man and woman dead in their bed; presumably they committed suicide to avoid punishment.

The couple was – surprise! – Agáta and Václav, and the shock of seeing her parents dead causes wolf Pavla to change back into a (very average looking) woman: but one with amnesia about all her previous lives. When a naked Pavla is discovered sleeping next to two dead people, she’s assumed a murderer and sent to jail.

The conditions in the prison are deplorable, and the women inmates are routinely physically and sexually assaulted by the guards. During Pavla’s stay, Iveta is the commander’s preferred victim, though “He doesn’t even fuck [her]” – rather, he just gets off on torturing women. After she’s accused of inciting a riot – in which two inmates are killed – Pavla is sent to the hole, a form of torture.

Pavla falls in love with Smetanka’s assistant, Danilo, who was sold into his service when his twin brother fell ill and his parents could not afford the treatment. Markus died anyway and, after he paid off his family’s debt, Danilo chose to stay on with Smetanka on account of he had no home to return to: his mother could no longer bear the sight of him.

After Pavla kills Smetanka and goes full wolf, Danilo lands a job as the tracker Klima’s assistant. He murders the man to save Pavla, and his raving confession – about being in love with a girl who was a dwarf, then a “normal-sized” wolf girl, then a full-fledged wolf – lands him in an asylum: Saint Gunther of Bohemia Home for Deteriorating Individuals. Here he’s subjected to all manner of abuses disguised as “treatments,” including being blasted with a high-powered hose. This creates a phobia of water and bathrooms, which the doctors ascribe to a buildup of toxins. He’s prescribed a “treatment of cathartic medication” which makes him have to go to the bathroom frequently, thus exacerbating his anxiety. Eventually he’s just sedated with Veronal. He develops an addiction, but is abruptly removed from the medication so that he can be put back to work sewing military uniforms. His father was a shoemaker, so he’s their best worker.

During his stay, children – orphans of war – are sent to live at the asylum. Though they’re housed separately from the patients, they’re able to observe the kids from certain vantage points. One of the patients is a pedophile who masturbates while staring at the kids. Later on, Markus – the kid with whom Danilo escapes when the asylum is bombed – reports that the pedophile openly harassed them: “He showed it to us once. It was big and purple. Once he squirted on us in the courtyard.”

Petr Matejcek, one of Pavla’s childhood friends, served in the war and likely came back with PTSD: “The war takes men one way or another. Did you see that Petr Matejcek has come home? The boy’s stark raving now. He’ll be useless to Gita and that baby.”

Among the other attractions in the carnival are Fortunate Františka, the blind fortune teller; conjoined Chinese twins, Ling Ling and Ting Ting, who are neither Chinese nor conjoined; a giant, who’s often drunk; Juliska, the Fattest Woman, who takes pride in her appearance; Evo, the Fish Boy, “whose mother has sewn flippers onto his back to go with the fin-like hands he was born with”; and three-breasted Magdalena.

Corporal punishment of children is common, both among parents and teachers. Pavla and Danilo’s parents both physically abused them. When Pavla and her peers pull a prank at school (replacing a map with a giant anatomical drawing of Petr’s penis), they’re made to line up with their pants down around their ankles so they can be flogged.

Václav doesn’t trust Father Matyáš, “who as a boy did questionable things with the back end of a sheep (As did you! Agáta always reminds him. But I grew up to be a plumber! Václav replies) to be the conveyer of His word.” He’s also an alcoholic, and it’s insinuated that he sexually abuses (or is attracted to) young boys.

Animal-friendly elements: Pavla’s transformation from dwarf to wolf-girl to wolf to woman blurs the line between human and animal in myriad ways. Her wolf act in Smetanka’s carnival evokes fear and disgust specifically because Pavla exists in both worlds simultaneously:

The true horror of her presence is not that she is a hideous girl or that she is a wolf, but that she is a bizarre combination of the two.

While she experienced varying levels of prejudice and ostracism both as a dwarf and as a wolf-girl, Pavla finds that being a beast is more dangerous. Smetanka frequently employs a shill to rush onstage and try and “unmask” Pavla (thus proving her authenticity). These encounters are often violent, but still safer than waiting for the crowd to have its way with her: her very existence whips them into an agitated, even hysterical, frenzy. When the show (d)evolves into a strip tease, the violence unsurprisingly becomes sexual in nature.

I found this passage particularly insightful and on the mark:

But in five months she has not gotten used to the dangerous energy of the crowd. During her dwarfish childhood when she was pitied and teased, occasionally accused of being the cause of a spate of fever or a poor crop yield, she never felt what she does now each night: that she is one step away from being murdered. She is, after all, the synthesis of two things men have a need to routinely destroy: animals and women.

Perhaps Pavla was an early ecofeminist?

As a wolf, Pavla retains some of her human memories, and vice versa, thus further blurring the boundaries between human and nonhuman – and potentially resulting in greater understanding between the two. (This aspect in particular reminded me of Emma Geen’s lovely and amazing book, The Many Selves of Katherine North, also out this year.)
 

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