Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Steve reviews You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

Though packed with up-to-date existential concepts and moral quandaries, You Deserve Nothing is in many ways a deceivingly light, enjoyable read. The prose is straightforward, & the characters are engaging and not too edgy, the kind you expect to find at a multinational though mostly American prep school in Paris.

Each section is titled by the name of its narrator, of which there are three. The most central and active protagonist is Will, who is often paired up with Mia, as they are both young and empathetic English teachers. But he is extremely charismatic and committed to his classes, the kind of teacher who “changes his students’ lives,” as we are repeatedly told.

The other two narrators are students at the school: a troubled loner named Gilad, who has transferred in from Riyadh, and benefits from Will’s challenges to finally come out of his shell, both in class and dealing with his bullying father. The third narrator, Marie, is also a bit unformed, but Will’s influence on her will be more problematical, perhaps just because she is not in his class but engages him on a personal level.

There are two pivotal events, which, though happening onstage, seem random and morally unexplored, both during and after. This parallels Camus’ The Stranger, which has been much discussed in some of Will’s class episodes, and one could claim You Deserve Nothing is a re-writing of The Stranger.

The psychological, moral, and thematic impact of the pivotal events are what reverberate back through all that has come before in the book, and the manipulative ability of Will as narrator undermines the ability of readers to be unbiased judges. But the issues it raises in plain and straightforward manner are ones that all can and should ponder in light of one’s preconceptions. “Literature,” as Will tells us, is irrelevant unless its questions have some bearing on the lives of the readers.” [p. 157]