Monday, December 5, 2011
You Deserve Nothing
Will Silver is a 30-ish American expatriate working in Paris, at an international high school, home to students from across the world, sons and daughters of diplomats and businessmen. Will is teaching a special seminar on philosophy and literature to Gilad, the son of an American businessman who uses his fists in communicating with Gilad's mother. Also in the seminar is Ariel, best friend of Marie who ends up in a sexual relationship with Will, to devastating effect to all. Set in 2002, as tensions around the world and in France were heating up, this is a novel about the dynamic of power and authority, and of the intersection of philosophy and life, narrated by Will, Marie and Gilad in the first person.
As every reviewer of this novel is going to mention, Alexander Maksik wrote this from personal experience, as he was a teacher in Paris who left his job after an inappropriate relationship with an underage student. Jezebel, of Gawker media, broke the story, and showed that this novel isn't nearly as innocent or as fictional as it might appear. The real "Marie" expresses the uncomfortable feeling that she was exploited and used, whereas in the novel, Marie longs for Will, and her last line is "I still dream of him." As a reviewer and critic, I hope I can separate the work from the artist. But I have to admit, that my own feelings of discomfort will bleed through. It is inescapable that I am not disturbed by Maksik's rewriting of reality. Even without this added dimension of reality, this work stands alone.
You Deserve Nothing, in a nutshell, is a promising debut. However, it is not a great novel. Nor is it even a good novel, but neither is it bad. It's aggressively average, from its themes to its repetitive prose, to its glaring signposts reminding the reader that this is, indeed, a first novel.
Firstly, there are innumerable scenes of teaching in the novel, with Will at the head of the class, diligently and earnestly explaining existentialism and Sartre and Camus to a group of homogenous students, all of whom have discrete names but blending voices. The teaching scenes are interesting at first, if only to get a sense of why and how these students seem to idolize Will. But then the teaching continues. It makes up one third of the novel. This is not a quantitative count, but an estimate. One third of the novel is a teacher teaching. To sound childish, if I wanted to be taught existentialism, I'd read it for myself rather than read a novel, in English, regurgitating and twisting Camus' words. At least, Maksik provides us with the opening line of L'etranger in French, a rather difficult passage to translate. Not only does he provide bits of Camus, but there are numerous pieces of other works, simply block quoted, so that we can read along with the earnest students and learn along with them. By the end of the novel, when some of the students have become disillusioned with Will, the teaching scenes are excruciating. If the teaching scenes are bad, maybe at least the reader can console himself with above average prose? Not so, unfortunately.
The cadence of Maksik's narrators are all the same, despite their different backgrounds and gender. They all narrate in the same style. The narrator uses two or three short sentences. Then to break up the style, the narrator eliminates the conjunctions, strings two clauses together. Just like that. I wrote this paragraph in Maksik's style.
There's an affected style of disaffection, of disillusioned people. This normally works for me; after all I love Bret Easton Ellis. The problem is that there is an overbearing sense of sameness with characters and scenes bleeding together. Structurally, Maksik uses three narrators, but they all sound the same and use the same style. Not only that, but even his multicultural students use the same voice. Colin, a student in Will's seminar, is from Dublin, as the audience is constantly reminded, but his accent and dialect is totally American. He uses specific American slang and misses that particular sentence structure that the Irish use. Maksik totally fails in constructing differing voices for any of his characters. This would not have been a problem if all the characters were American students of the same socio-economic background. No, Maksik uses a specific multicultural and multiethnic cast, from the Irish kid to the Muslim kid who speaks exactly like a boorish isolationist American thinks a Muslim speaks.
My edition of the novel has 320 pages. Every time the narrator switches, there is a blank page. Therefore, there are at least 40 pages of blank pages, lowering our page count to 280. If one third of that are asinine teaching scenes, then only 186 pages are actually important. Of that 186, there are many repeated scenes, from each of the narrator's point of view. The point I am trying to make? This is a short story with ample padding. If this had been a short story, without Gilad and Colin, focusing only on Marie and Will's disastrous relationship, I would have loved it. It would have been a tight and gripping narrative of the delusions of power. Unfortunately, we have a earnest naive novel filled with extras from Dead Poets Society.
Now that I have thoroughly excoriated the novel, and judged it on its own merits, let us turn to the unfortunate reality of the situation Maksik found himself him. Jezebel tells us that almost everything in the novel is taken from actual experience, with only the names changed. We can then position Maksik onto Will. Therefore, Maksik wrote a novel about himself as a charming and charismatic teacher that all female students want to bang, a teacher whom the male students idolize, whom even the faculty thinks is a fantastic and efficient teacher. Maksik re-wrote the ending of this episode, from real life, into one in which it is Maksik who makes the fateful decision to depart, leaving Marie in a longing state, pining away for Maksik.
The cliche of first time novelists is that they tend to write idealized versions of themselves into the novel. Otherwise known as a Mary Sue in fanfiction parlance. Maksik has written a creepy and narcissistic version of events that paints him in a rather flattering light. The effect of which is to turn me off entirely. At the beginning of the novel, I was quite enamored with the French setting, the multicultural student body, and the sexual subtext. By the end of the novel, I was creeped out, but not in the way Maksik intended. Will seems to love Marie. Marie reciprocates this. At no point does Maksik entertain the notion that this is a situation of power and dominance. Maksik used his authority as leverage to sleep with a girl, despite the girl thinking that it was her choice. In the teaching scenes, Maksik implies heavily that there are no choices, that there is no free will. It is a determinist novel. At the end, Will is accused by the headmaster of thinking himself innocent. Will provides a sly smirk and walks away into the sunset. He thinks he is innocent because there is no free will. He is an idiot.
The novel is amateurish and clumsily written. The prose is weak and repetitive. Add into this mix the fact that Maksik thinks he did nothing wrong and re-wrote reality to suit his ego, then you have the recipe for a novel that is not good, but not bad. Maksik has enough talent to make the novel readable, engaging, and at the beginning, quite good. Perhaps with a second novel, not based on his questionable decisions, then he'll succeed. It is laudable that Maksik even wrote a novel about such a controversial and taboo subject, but he did it in the clumsiest way he possibly could.