Marisa Silver is the author of the novels The God of War, No Direction Home, and Little Nothing; and two story collections, Alone With You and Babe in Paradise. She joins Signature to share five unconventional works of fiction that inspired her while writing Little Nothing, her most recent novel.
Little Nothing tells the story of Pavla, a dwarf girl born to peasants in an unnamed country in Eastern Europe in the early part of the 20th Century. As Pavla grows, she undergoes a series of uncanny transformations in and out of human form. Despite the strange and mystifying events that drive the plot, my aim was to write a book whose deeper implications speak to a life we recognize. Here are some novels I love that do just that. They were wonderful inspirations.
Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
This book took my breath away. When I finished it, I thought: I’ve just experienced a wholly original work of art. Using the tropes of fairy tales, this wild twist on Ludwig Bemelmans “Madeleine” books, tells a story of a girl’s coming of sexual age. Strange things happen: a gigantic winged woman soars above a French village. Another woman turns into the shape a viol. Madeleine falls in love with a man whose talent lies in his prodigious flatulence. The prose is incantatory and thrilling.
The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine
A remarkable novel about stories. It’s also a book about why we tell stories, why they endure, and how we use them to live. Like Russian dolls, stories open up into other stories. What’s exciting is that at the same time that we are entranced by stories that have the feel of classical Middle Eastern tales, we are getting involved with very contemporary stories of Lebanon. Alameddine’s brilliant structure allows all these tales to speak to one another across time.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Just the best, weirdest, funniest, most perverse, most troubling book ever written about circus freaks, about families, about what it means to be “normal” and not, and about the uses and abuses of power. The book’s narrator is unforgettable: brilliant, mad, morally corrupt. Dunn didn’t write a lot in her life, but if she’d only written this book, it would have been enough.
Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls
A grief stricken woman falls in love with a giant amphibian. And she thinks it is not at all strange. Which is why this book is so fantastic. The tone is so matter-of-fact that we start wondering whether what is happening to Dorothy is in fact happening or whether it just a manifestation of her traumatized mind. And then we realize we are asking ourselves the central question fiction asks of us: will we believe in something that is presented to us as real but is only the creation of a writer? The book compounds the investigation into belief by asking us to decide whether, within this fictional “truth” there are other fictions at play. And if there are, then is something in the fictional universe actually true?
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Every time I read this book I understand it a little more and a little less. There is no point synopsizing the plot here. It makes no sense unless you take a deep dive inside the text and just allow its many implications and allusions to wash over you. It’s about time, it’s about movies, it’s about images and reality, it’s about memory and about whether memory has any coherence with fact. It’s about love and loneliness. It’s about consciousness. It’s about, I think, the problem of being alive and wanting to make connections and being unable to make connections. It’s about — I think it’s time to read it again.