YOU DESERVE NOTHING by Alexander Maksik
â€śJust go sit in a cafĂ© and read the play,â€ť he told us. â€śHave a coffee. Take a pen.â€ť
He said these things as if they were obvious, as if they were what any normal person would do.
But they werenâ€™t obvious things to most of us. Even if I explored Paris on my own, even if I sat by myself from time to time on the banks of the river, when he suggested them they were different, as if weâ€™d be crazy not to listen. And so those many of us who loved him, we did what he asked. And we felt important, we felt wild, we felt like poets and artists, we felt like adults living in the world with books in our hands, with pens, with passions. And when we returned to school, how many of us prayed heâ€™d ask what weâ€™d done over the weekend? Not only if weâ€™d read but where.
And thatâ€™s something.
Review by Devon Shepherd Â (SEP 26, 2011)
Part school story, part existentialism primer, You Deserve Nothing, is a deftly told and absorbing debut. Ostensibly, the story of a troubled teacher who goes too far, You Deserve Nothing is also a thoughtful examination of moral education, of the ways in which we learn to navigate the minefield between duty and freedom, courage and cowardice, the self and the persona. The story, predominately concerned with a scandal that is as shocking as it is mundane, is told from three perspectives some five or so years later: Will Silverâ€™s, a young and charismatic English teacher; Marie de ClĂ©ryâ€™s, the beautiful, but insecure daughter of a cruelly elegant mother and a workaholic father; Gilad Fischerâ€™s, an intelligent but lonely boy, the son of an American diplomat and Israeli mother, who idolizes Will.
International School of France is an expensive private school in Paris, and while the majority of students at ISF are â€śkids whoâ€™d been plucked from an Air Force base in Virginia and deposited in Paris, who resented the move, refused to adapt,â€ť the informal style of Will Silverâ€™s Senior Seminar resonates with the privileged offspring of upper-echelon executives and foreign diplomats, kids â€śwho were fluent in several languages and cultures, who were so relaxed, so natural in exquisite apartments at elaborate parties, who moved from country to country, from adult to adolescent with a professional ease.â€ť A dynamic and charismatic teacher, Will pushes his students to think through ideas of duty and freedom, courage and responsibility as they appear in the Bible and the works of Sartre, Camus, Shakespeare, and Faulkner. Although a true believer in the power and importance of literature, Will canâ€™t help but wonder if much of the pleasure of teaching â€ślies exclusively in the performing, in being adored.â€ť Will enjoys celebrity among the student body, and undoubtedly, his exhortation to pursue your dreams â€śin spite of fear . . . No matter what. Because you have to. Because you know itâ€™s right. Because you believe in it. Because by not doing it youâ€™re betraying yourselfâ€ť will remind many of Robin Williamsâ€™ character (carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary) in Dead Poetâ€™s Society, and as I read the classroom scenes, I half-expected everyone to jump up on chairs and quote Walt Whitman (O Captain! My Captain).
An obvious association, I know, but I couldnâ€™t help but feel at times that thatâ€™s the point, that Will is aping that role â€“ the role of risk-taking, life-changing teacher. This is a book about courage and responsibility, about the ways in which we shirk our freedom and opt out of creating ourselves; moving half-way across the world for a job you love might seem like a brave choice, but for Will itâ€™s an act of cowardice, an abrupt flight from a wife he loves when the pain of his parentsâ€™ deaths becomes too much.
Numbing himself with a sort of Sartrean bad faith, Willâ€™s dazzling persona protects him from having to emotionally engage with the world. Even when he flouts conventional morality and starts a sexual relationship with Marie, both a minor and a student at ISF, it is less a principled embrace of desire than a retreat from his despair, having witnessed a murder, and his shame at having done nothing to apprehend the murderer. Even the young and inexperienced Marie starts â€śto have the impression that [she] was making love to a ghost or something.â€ť However, there are no easy villains here, and Alexander Maksik wisely avoids moralizing their relationship. Although Marie, masking her inexperience and insecurity, plays at being the seductress, Maksik allows her a honest sexuality, and Will, unable to doff his role as the instructor, gently teaches her how to enjoy her sexual nature. This is not to excuse Will, of course. Mickey Gold, ISFâ€™s bumbling biology teacher, hits it on the head when he advises Will that trading in the complicated (and reciprocated) love of a real woman for the empty pleasure of â€śthose adoring eyesâ€ť is â€śa cowardâ€™s game.â€ť
Just as Marieâ€™s disappointment with Will is inevitable, Giladâ€™s hero-worship can only mature through disillusionment. Gilad, in the way of the young, conflates the thrilling ideas being taught with the character of his teacher and when, after a heartbreaking scene with his parents, he sits in a cafĂ©, reading Camus, it pleases him to think that Will would approve of him â€śthere alone, so early in the morning, paying such attention to simple, beautiful thingsâ€ť and when Gilad admits that his infatuation was so complete he â€śwanted to go to war for him,â€ť,I was reminded of one of the best instances of hero-worship and disillusionment in literature: Nicholas Rostovâ€™s infatuation with Tsar Alexander in War and Peace (in case thereâ€™s any doubt: I mean this as a compliment). In fact, itâ€™s partly Â Maksikâ€™s astute understanding of adolescent psychology and mannerism that makes this book so good and his characters so real, as captured here in this bantering dialogue between Will and a former student, Mazin:
â€ś . . . I miss our talks.â€ť
â€śBut weâ€™re having one now.â€ť
â€śYeah, on my free period. Lame.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m flattered youâ€™d waste your free period with me, Maz.â€ť
â€śYeah, well donâ€™t get too excited. Anyway Silver, schoolâ€™s a waste of my time.â€ť
â€śNo man, I donâ€™t want a carrot, I want to know why I shouldnâ€™t just move to LA and start a band.â€ť
â€śWho says you shouldnâ€™t?â€ť
â€śYou realize, right, that this is a tired conversation? You know everything Iâ€™m going to tell you. Itâ€™s the height of boring.â€ť
â€śNo, I donâ€™t. Youâ€™re the height of boring. What are you going to tell me?â€ť
However difficult Marie and Giladâ€™s loss of innocence is, narrated from a place of relative wisdom many years later, that past pain is softened. In comparison, Will is frustratingly opaque, and I couldnâ€™t help but wonder about the place he was narrating from: had he found the courage to dismantle his armor or was he â€śteaching the needy in some unspecified African nationâ€ť or â€śliving cheap in Thailand,â€ť still a ghost?
You Deserve Nothing is an auspicious debut, both for Alexander Maksik who shows himself here to be an unfairly talented writer and for the new Europa Editionsâ€™ imprint, edited by Alice Sebold (of The Lovely Bones fame), Tonga Books. I look forward to seeing more from both.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 73 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Europa Editions; 1 edition (August 30, 2011)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Alexander Maksik|
|EXTRAS:||ExcerptÂ andÂ Interview with the author|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:
September 26, 2011
Â· Judi Clark Â· No Comments
Tags: Boarding School, Courage, Identity, Life Choices, Morality, Philosophical, Writing Life Â· Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Character Driven, Contemporary, Debut Novel, Literary