My reading has been afire lately. It was only a matter of time before I felt the flames on my own skin. Last night I stayed up late, late, late to finish the last … 200 pages or so of Alexander Maksik's novel, You Deserve Nothing. When I finally closed the book, sleepily dropping it to the floor, I still couldn't sleep. My mind whirred along with the novel, still. My body hummed.
However, I began the novel feeling only sedate interest in it, even mild disappointment: the story slides among the first-person narratives of three characters, and I was still feeling maddened by the way that Colum McCann uses a similar tactic in Let the Great World Spin. In my mood, multiple shifting viewpoints seemed to preclude my ability to feel immersed in a novel. Maksik proved to be the cure. I slunk in, and didn't come up for air.
Set in Paris in 2002, You Deserve Nothing introduces us to William Silver, a young talented literature teacher at an international high school that caters to the children of wealthy diplomats and military officers. The immensely popular instructor puts his greatest effort into a senior seminar, which specializes in provocative discussions about Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, William Shakespeare, and William Faulkner. We also meet Gilad Fisher, an intelligent introvert who moves with his parents to Paris just before the start of his senior year. And we meet Marie de Cléry, a French young woman who is at once a seeker, a student at the school, and Silver's lover. You Deserve Nothing balances the three vantages by using their narration to both double back in time and to propel the story forward. Secondary characters — the teacher who is kind of in love with Silver, the manipulative pseudo-best friend of Marie, the crude and cursing Irish student, the diminishing parents of Gilad — provide unnerving, unresolved texture.
I was skeptical about the relationship between Silver and Marie, thinking it was a storyline too familiar for me to find revelation. "Oh, it's this guy," I thought with inner sarcasm in the early pages of Silver's narration. But the brilliance of the book is that it does not hinge so wholly on the teacher-student affair — though it, of course, is the engine of the novel, and particularly evocative about the consequences of moral ambiguity.
What gives this big-hearted book its heft, its heat, is the wise way that it interacts with other texts. Maksik is an artist in how he moves through the stories and theory behind literature in a way that is aptly integrated with the novel at hand, giving it dimension and texture. Though he sometimes repeats them, Maksik's use of quotations never overwhelms You Deserve Nothing; rather, it does give readers meaningful perspective — even a sense of exhileration. There is, for example, these lines from Camus' essay, "The Sea You Live By", which Silver reads to his seminar on a cold Friday afternoon:
Space and silence weigh equally upon the heart. A sudden love, a great work, a decisive act, a thought that transfigures, all these at certain moments bring the same unbearable anxiety, quickened with an irresistable charm. Living like this, in the delicious anguish of being, in exquisite proximity to a danger whose name we do not know, is this the same as rushing to your doom? Once again, without respite, let us race to our destruction. I have always felt I lived on the high seas, threatened, at the heart of a royal happiness.
But here is what moved me most.
The novel brought me back to that time in my late teens when my hunger for heroes turned passionate, almost desperate. Many of us — all of us? — share this experience. We are believers. We want to have faith in the purposeful human life, and in the select people who can guide us into it. "You changed my life." We want to say that to someone, and mean it. There is a worthy way of being in the world, we begin to feel, and when we discover someone who seems to be living it, we fall in love and hang on tight.
Both Gilad and Marie find their hero in Silver, in their different ways, though Silver himself has lost his center and is spiraling into the black hole left behind. Gilad thrills at Silver's way of seeing students as adults, suggesting they spend an autumn weekend reading Hamlet.
'Just go sit in a cafe and read the play,' he told us. 'Have a coffee. Take a pen.'"
He said these things as if they were obvious, as if they were what any normal person would do. But they weren't obvious to most of us. Even if I explored Paris on my own, even if I sat by myself from time to time on the banks of the river, when he suggested them they were different, as if we'd be crazy not to listen. And so those many of us who loved him, we did what he asked. And we felt important, we felt wild, we felt like poets and artists, we felt like adults living in the world with books in our hands, with pens, with passions. And when we returned to school, how many of us prayed he'd ask what we'd done over the weekend? Not only if we read but where.
And that's something.
'Just go sit in the Luxembourg Gardens,' he said. 'Get one of those nice free chairs, sit in the sun and read, watch the people, eat a sandwich, get out of your houses. Jesus.'
And so I did. And I started wearing a scarf.
Silver's urging of his students to take literature off the page and "engage with the world" prompts some students to participate in a massive anti-war protest in Paris, part of that season's global resistance to the United States' looming war in Iraq. This, in turn, sets up a pivotal scene when frightening tensions emerge among different bands of protesters. And this leads key characters to lose their courage, and their faith.
Powerfully, the novel also shifted me back to the dark time when we realize that everyone will disappoint us. The acid taste on the tongue. The profound dislocation at our core. Everyone. In a world of senseless violence and cruelty, pettiness distorts where society places its moral outrage. For individuals, there is distance between desire and action, and conviction is rarely enough to carry us across.
This is a novel about fear.
How do you live a good life? What means something, and what means nothing? What is this ghost of decency and conscience, and what, if anything, does happiness have to do with it? What are we to do with the space between our birth and death? These are the existential questions that are at the core of You Deserve Nothing. It kept me awake at night.