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The undeserving truth.

April 25, 2012

Despite its rather provocative title, Alexander Maksik’s acclaimed debut novel, You Deserve Nothing, is a subtle and complex exploration of the fluctuating distance between our ideals and our actions. While Maksik’s plot treads familiar ground—it centres on a doomed affair between a teacher and one of his teenage students*—his sharp prose and penetrating philosophical allusions make this a challenging and thought-provoking read.

It’s 2002 in Paris, and Will Silver is a charismatic young American teacher at the ISF, an international school for the sons and daughters of the wealthy. He’s a typical Dead Poet’s Society figure—students call him ‘dude’ and invite him to their end-of-year parties, and parents congratulate him for changing their children’s lives.

Silver puts on an impressive performance in the classroom, introducing his students to heavyweights such as Camus, Walden, and Shakespeare, and challenging them to consider the great ideas of literature and philosophy in the context of their own lives. Within weeks of the new academic year, they’re discussing everything from Hamlet to existentialism with passionate exuberance, defining the very essence of what it means to live a good life. ‘”Fear. That is what separates the hero from the common man,”’ Silver tells them. They must act ‘”in spite of fear. Because you have to. Because you know it’s right. Because you believe in it. Because by not doing it you’re betraying yourself.”’

But Silver falls well short of the grand ideas he instils in his young charges, who consider their teacher’s words against a backdrop of global political unrest—war is being declared on Iraq, and the streets of Paris seethe with protestors—and personal drama. Gilad, a withdrawn seventeen-year-old who develops a crush on Silver, watches his father physically abuse his mother; Marie, an insecure girl whose best friend Ariel is in Silver’s class, has a chance encounter with the teacher that leads, inevitably, to a secret affair.

Marie, Gilad, and Will take turns to narrate the story, looking back on the events of 2002 from five years on; Maksik’s split perspectives effectively highlight the moral complexities his characters face. In the wake of his actions, Silver’s rousing words in the classroom seem as empty as the school’s echoing hallways during summer break—but how rarely do we encounter a person who truly embodies their ideals? Silver is a coward with a gift for oratory; for all his questions he poses to his students, he seems, ultimately, as lost and frail as they are in their most unguarded moments.

Maksik’s Parisian setting is an apt backdrop for these moral grey areas. The City of Lights is at once beautiful and menacing, a place where boulevards are lit with blue lights, homeless men lie in doorways, and the night air in winter smells ‘like chestnuts and burning sugar’; within it, the ISF is a peculiar microcosm behind a black metal gate, full of wealthy expat kids in their ‘American uniforms’ of Gap and Banana Republic and Nike.

However, for all the engaging ideas at the heart of their story, Maksik’s three central characters remain elusive. Their narrative voices are too similar—all three speak in short, declarative sentences that are reminiscent of Camus’s The Stranger, a novel that You Deserve Nothing references frequently.

But You Deserve Nothing remains a gripping read, propelled by its subtle and provocative exploration of a difficult profession. ‘You rarely, rarely take a class from a teacher who cares,’ observes Gilad, because ‘the ones who care, who love the subjects, who love their students, who love, above all, all, teaching—they rarely hang around.’ Do too many years of performing for others ultimately stall the progress between desire and action?  ‘”It’s a coward’s game, you understand?”’ one of Silver’s colleagues tells him. ‘”We live for too long on those adoring eyes and then one day, it’s just not enough. It’s nothing at all but if you’re not careful, it’ll be all you have.”’

For all that Silver disappoints those he once inspired, this in itself is a lesson—‘”so he’s not a fucking hero,”’ a student observes. ‘”Who is? What do we expect, you know?”’

And what do we deserve? Silver’s actions are perhaps a perfect exemplar of the challenge suggested by the book’s title: if, as Sartre suggests, ‘man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterward,’ then Silver’s fate accords with his deeds—he deserves only the consequences of the hand he chooses to play.

 *I’ve since discovered that Maksik’s novel is based on actual events, although perhaps the term ‘based’ is too subtle—from what I’ve read, You Deserve Nothing is practically a memoir. Maksik was a teacher at the American School of Paris until 2006, when he was asked to resign for—you guessed it—sleeping with a student. Apparently, Maksik didn’t attempt to disguise characters or events in the novel, which understandably angered many of those involved. I have to admit that this changes my perspective somewhat; Maksik’s portrayal of Silver and Marie ultimately seems self-indulgent. 

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