[Europa Editions; 2011]

The plot of Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing is familiar: star literature teacher (It’s always literature or music) moves students, inspiring them to rebel against their parents in ways advocated by Harold Bloom’s Western Cannon. The students start to accept that their parents are a little weaker, a little more complicated, than they had realized a few summer’s ago. And there’s a modicum of low-level violence. A momento mori. And sex. And politics. And then the semester ends. H.A.K.A.S.

In other words, a general outline of the novel sounds, on its face, a little worn-thin. And, on its face, it is. Any novel that takes place at an English-language international school in Paris, shifting perspectives from shy male student Gilad Fisher, to sexually blossoming Marie de Clery, to the superstar teacher Will Silver, is going to be a minefield of cliches. The central power-dynamic itself — teacher seems superhuman then is revealed to be a normal human — is, well, boring. But that makes it all the more amazing when Maksik somehow pulls it off.

It isn’t interesting that Marie De Clery and Will Silver have sex. Teachers and students doing it has been banal for thousands of years. But the total lack of an objective experience within the text is interesting. Marie sees the relationship differently than Will does, who sees it differently than Marie’s friends do, who see it differently than the school’s administration does. And the inability to share anything resembling a unified experience is both what makes this book interesting, as well as what tests the ideological strength of the Modernism that this book relies so heavily on.

It isn’t interesting that Gilad Fisher’s dad beats his mom. What’s interesting is the way that violence itself plays a role in Gilad’s disillusionment with the male authority figures in his life. On the one hand, his father disappoints because he beats his mom. On the other hand, Will Silver disappoints because he doesn’t fight back when a young man pushes him down and spits on him during a political march. Gilad’s mom disappoints because she doesn’t fight back when her husband is abusive. Gilad begins to loath himself for not stepping up to his father. It’s this strange amplification of people’s weaknesses that strikes me as a realistic and particularly teenagerish way to interpret motivations.

It isn’t interesting that Will Silver is trying to pull off a third-rate Dead Poets Society. But it is interesting how true to life the dialogue from the classrooms scenes is. Maksik certainly has his “types” down. There’s the inarticulate and emotionally frustrated bro. There’s the hippie girl. There’s the suck-up. There’s the religious kid. I remember them all, well. And the subtle emotional curves of a classroom discussion with a great teacher are way too realistic for Maksik to ever deny having been a teacher himself. There are emotional backwaters here that I haven’t explored since my senior World Literature class.

So finally, despite Will’s lessons to his students from Camus, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Sartre, the saddest lesson of all, the most haunting, is always your failure to live up to other peoples expectations, not to mention your own. And the irony is apparent: How can a book succeed when its goal is to show the failures of existential books in teaching practical wisdom? Somehow, it does.


 

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  • guest

    Actually (and aside from Maksik’s outstanding and well-crafted novel), what is “interesting” is the reviewer’s cultivated tone of ironic world weariness–the result no doubt of many years of life and literary experience. Sadly, during those years he or she must have skipped Latin (it’s memento mori, not momento), traded military training for literary training (it’s canon not cannon), and stayed home from 7th grade the day the teacher explained the difference between subjective and objective. On the other hand, so much wisdom must be burdensome. So much to read, so much to review.

    • This is not the type of comment we have this section for. Please refrain from personal attacks on our contributors. You can disagree with their ideas, but not their spelling. 

    • If you’re going to be an insufferable piece of shit, at least sign your comments. Until then, fuck off.

      • That’s was really what I was trying to say.

    • Scott Beauchamp

      Sorry for the mistakes, and yes, I traded a classroom education for military experience. Two tours in Iraq instead of finishing college. Sorry that my typos made that so obvious.   

      • guest

        I owe Scott an apology. No excuses, just an explanation. I’m a writer and there are days when writers feel vulnerable. And, I finished “You Deserve Nothing” just last night. I found it a courageous and perplexing book–no easy answers, no heroes, no tidy endings. The story and the characters continue to stay with me. As Scott has noted, and as I ignored, the book succeeds.

        • Sarah Gerard

          A reviewer is a writer and there are days when reviewers feel vulnerable, too. Liking a book should encourage you to discuss the book, not the people reviewing it. There’s nothing honorable about ad hominem criticism. With that said, I’m going to post this with my name on it — because I have balls.

  • Jezebel is running an exclusive story about Alexander Maksik and his very real relationship with a high school student while he was a teacher at the American School of Paris. It’s interesting that he never alluded to that coincidence. As a graduate of ASP and a former student of Maksik’s, I’m shocked that he had the nerve to write this “novel”http://jezebel.com/Alexander-maksik/

  • Money

    i was in his english class.. guys a pedophile and knocked up a girl in our class at American School of Paris…he got fired back in 2006… not cool dont buy his book unless you support pedophilia; in which case you suck.