I was fairly delighted, about a hundred pages into You Deserve Nothing, to see the squiggles from the cover image near the top of the page, presented as an excerpt from the notebook of one of the book’s narrators. Gilad Fisher has just moved to Paris, and is a senior at the International School of France, where one of his classes is a seminar with Will Silver, a charismatic literature teacher. The squiggle has these words under it: “What is.” And then there’s this, from Gilad’s notebook:

Then beneath that drawing a few inches down the page I have the same drawing but this time with a grid superimposed on top of it.

And then underneath that squiggle/grid there’s this: “What we insist it is.” (94).

I never read Sartre’s philosophical writings in high school, but I sure did like No Exit, and if I’d had a class where we started with Sartre and moved on to Hamlet and Camus, I’d probably have been pretty delighted. So I liked the school scenes in this book; I liked Will’s in-the-classroom performances, even when they bordered on cheesy or clumsy. And I liked Gilad, a lot: he’s a smart kid and a loner, and Paris is the first place he’s lived that he’s been able to explore by himself, his first experience of discovering a city. Gilad idolizes Will, though over the course of the book he becomes disenchanted, too, realizing that some of Will’s noble talk about ideals and doing what you believe in and choosing your existence is just that, noble talk.

But the story isn’t just, or even primarily, about Gilad, though I found his narrative voice the most compelling, or about Will. It’s also about Marie, another student at the school, and how she and Will end up in a sexual relationship. They meet at another kid’s graduation party when Marie’s a rising senior and end up dancing together in a crowded club. Their retellings of that first meeting differ a bit—in his version she’s all seductress; in hers she’s a bit of a seductress but also inexperienced and terrified. Clearly this is unlikely to end well, and it doesn’t, but there are moments of joy, or almost-joy, and beauty while things last, and it certainly makes for a compelling read. I liked the book’s use of alternating perspectives, and I like Maksik’s style, the rhythm and images of sentences like “The quiet of a school emptied for the summer is that of a hotel closed for winter, a library closed for the night, ghosts swirling through the rooms” (19).

If you’ve heard anything about this book, you’ve probably heard about the allegations that it’s based on the author’s own relationship with a high school student. As Teresa at Shelf Love pointed out back in December, this raises a whole bunch of questions about authorial responsibility and where various moral lines are or might be. There is clearly lots to be said on that front, but, well, I’m not really going to. Unless you really really want to talk about it in the comments. (The short version is that I agree with the last paragraph of this review on Goodreads.)

Leave a Reply

Subscribe without commenting