Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Marie C. Reviews You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

You Deserve Nothing, by Alexander Maksik. Published 2011 by Europa Editions.

"We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us" - Jean-Paul Sartre

How can I begin to describe You Deserve Nothing, Alexander Maksik's novel and the first novel to be published in Europa Editions' new Tonga imprint? It's a coming of age story in a sense about all three characters from whose varying perspectives the story is told- Will, the teacher in his mid-thirties who still thinks and acts like a teenager, Marie, the teen girl with whom he's having an affair, and Gilad, his student, who idolizes him. Actually both teens idolize Will, as do many of his students; he's supposed to be one of those charismatic teachers who set their students' souls on fire.

Will is a teacher at a high school in Paris and much of the book takes place in Will's classroom. Maksik uses the classroom discussions about God and philosophy as a pretext to examine how different personalities interact with each other. There's Colin, a tough Irish kid with a chip on his shoulder, and Hala, an atheist who goes up against Abdul, a religious Muslim who seems to take everything as a personal affront. There's Ariel, the pretty girl used to using her looks to get her way, and Gilad, the troubled diplomat's son who's spent his young life traveling the globe with his parents only to settle in Paris and make of Will a role model of decent manhood.

Under the surface, though, Gilad's globetrotting life and storybook family stands in radical opposition to the chaos underneath. Ariel is Marie's best friend, but their friendship is one of those toxic high school codependencies made up of combat and competition more than affection. Ariel sets her cap at Will, or Mr. Silver as he's known professionally, but it's the frumpier, less confident Marie who wins her way into his bed. Their relationship, devastating in its psychological accuracy in many ways, still plays out like a fantasy version of a professor-student romance- rainy nights in a cozy apartment, dressing up in his shirts, spaghetti with sauce and passionate sex. Meanwhile Gilad looks to Will for a different kind of guidance and both Gilad and Marie wind up disillusioned.

You Deserve Nothing is a terrific and challenging read in many ways. It's a story about people trying to figure out if they're really the people others have made them out to be; is Marie really the mousy, unattractive girl her mother thinks she is, or the sexpot she sells to Will? Does she truly love Will or is the relationship a means to an end for her, a way to prove something to her beautiful mother and sexy friend? Is Gilad going to fail at manhood like his father? Sometimes in life we're attracted to people because they confirm our vision of our self; what do Gilad and Marie's feelings about Will say about them? Does Will deserve all this hero-worship? I found his relationship with Marie to be deeply disturbing because it's so obvious how he takes advantage of her, even if he doesn't realize it himself, and his relationship with Gilad is just kind of sad and pathetic in its own way, too. Both plot- and character-driven, and shot through with a lovely sense of the city in which it's set, I enjoyed this challenging, winning book and I think it would be a wonderful, off-beat choice for a book club, as well as a great book for readers of literary fiction.

I got to meet Maksik at a recent event at Harvard Book Store. His reading was much better than my photography!

This book counts towards my climb to Amante Level!