A morally ambiguous literary novel about a charismatic teacher and impressionable students is not an original tale. But that doesn't mean it can’t be a compelling and fascinating one. YOU DESERVE NOTHING by Alexander Maksik takes this tried-and-true formula and gives it a bit of a shake. The result is a tense examination of power, sexuality, courage and education.
"YOU DESERVE NOTHING is a confident debut novel. Maksik's prose is lovely, his multiple perspective works well, and his use of philosophical ideas...is challenging and compelling."
YOU DESERVE NOTHING is told, about six years after the events it describes, by three narrators: high school students Gilad and Marie, and a teacher at their school, William Silver. The school, an international one in Paris where most of the learning is done in English, is populated by teenagers from wealthy and diplomatic families. They are at once innocent and jaded, coming into their own even as they drink coffee in cafes and beer in bars. Will is the handsome and unconventional English teacher who inspires his students to think critically, fully engage with literature and see the world in new ways. The boys all want to be him, and the girls all want to get close to him. He is like, a friend quips, “a cult leader.” But Will is dangerously lonely, and Maksik gives us only a peek at his past: we know his parents both died, and shortly thereafter he left his wife. But that is all we really know of his background.
When he begins an affair with Marie, we see him as both desperate and cold, predatory and wounded. Despite any warmth readers may feel for him, his transgression is immense and criminal. From Marie's perspective, we gain an understanding of her part in the affair, but Will remains a cipher. A French girl viewed as “too American” by her own mother and far less attractive than her gorgeous and wild best friend, Marie is drawn to what she sees as Will's quiet strength and tender nature.
Gilad is a more distant observer of Will's, moved by his intellectual rigor and compelling arguments to be an active participant in life and true to oneself. At home and in the world at large, Gilad takes Will's lessons at face value and begins to grow into a brave and thoughtful young man, even as this process means an inevitable rejection of William Silver. Though Will is the center of the story, Gilad is its hero, the one who demonstrates change, growth and flexibility. Will is the catalyst and focus, and Marie the emotional honesty, but the story really belongs to Gilad.
We never learn what has damaged Will, what makes him run from emotional commitment, how his parents died, or why he left his wife, though they all seem to be connected. He never successfully confronts his own cowardice, which is perhaps the real tension in the book. Everything else hinges upon whether or not he will, or is even capable of that confrontation, of whether or not he can look honestly at his past and take responsibility for his own actions. That Maksik never gives us enough background to understand Will is at once frustrating and powerful.
YOU DESERVE NOTHING is a confident debut novel. Maksik's prose is lovely, his multiple perspective works well, and his use of philosophical ideas such as Sartre's existentialism is challenging and compelling. Though he is playing with very familiar themes, the book is interesting and well-written, and, thus, highly recommended.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 13, 2011
You Deserve Nothing