YOU DESERVE NOTHING by Alexander Maksik

Book Quote:

“Just go sit in a café and read the play,” he told us. “Have a coffee. Take a pen.”

He said these things as if they were obvious, as if they were what any normal person would do.

But they weren’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 we’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 he’d ask what we’d done over the weekend? Not only if we’d read but where.

And that’s something.

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd  (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 Silver’s, a young and charismatic English teacher; Marie de Cléry’s, the beautiful, but insecure daughter of a cruelly elegant mother and a workaholic father; Gilad Fischer’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 “kids who’d been plucked from an Air Force base in Virginia and deposited in Paris, who resented the move, refused to adapt,” the informal style of Will Silver’s Senior Seminar resonates with the privileged offspring of upper-echelon executives and foreign diplomats, kids “who 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.” 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 can’t help but wonder if much of the pleasure of teaching “lies exclusively in the performing, in being adored.” Will enjoys celebrity among the student body, and undoubtedly, his exhortation to pursue your dreams “in spite of fear . . . No matter what. Because you have to. Because you know it’s right. Because you believe in it. Because by not doing it you’re betraying yourself” will remind many of Robin Williams’ character (carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary) in Dead Poet’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 couldn’t help but feel at times that that’s the point, that Will is aping that role – 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 it’s an act of cowardice, an abrupt flight from a wife he loves when the pain of his parents’ deaths becomes too much.

Numbing himself with a sort of Sartrean bad faith, Will’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 “to have the impression that [she] was making love to a ghost or something.” 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, ISF’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 “those adoring eyes” is “a coward’s game.”

Just as Marie’s disappointment with Will is inevitable, Gilad’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 café, reading Camus, it pleases him to think that Will would approve of him “there alone, so early in the morning, paying such attention to simple, beautiful things” and when Gilad admits that his infatuation was so complete he “wanted to go to war for him,”,I was reminded of one of the best instances of hero-worship and disillusionment in literature: Nicholas Rostov’s infatuation with Tsar Alexander in War and Peace (in case there’s any doubt: I mean this as a compliment). In fact, it’s partly  Maksik’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:

“ . . . I miss our talks.”
“But we’re having one now.”
“Yeah, on my free period. Lame.”
“I’m flattered you’d waste your free period with me, Maz.”
“Yeah, well don’t get too excited. Anyway Silver, school’s a waste of my time.”
“No man, I don’t want a carrot, I want to know why I shouldn’t just move to LA and start a band.”
“Who says you shouldn’t?”
“Please. Everyone.”
“You realize, right, that this is a tired conversation? You know everything I’m going to tell you. It’s the height of boring.”
“No, I don’t. You’re the height of boring. What are you going to tell me?”

However difficult Marie and Gilad’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 couldn’t help but wonder about the place he was narrating from: had he found the courage to dismantle his armor or was he “teaching the needy in some unspecified African nation” or “living cheap in Thailand,” 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 Editions’ 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)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Alexander Maksik
EXTRAS: Excerpt and Interview with the author
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September 26, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Character Driven, Contemporary, Debut Novel, Literary

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