Maksik’s debut novel is not a perfect thing, though he does a magnificent job catching the idiom and inflection of high school enrollees in the International School of France (ISF), an American school in a wealthy enclave of Paris. Three voices interweave: Marie, a student learning the power of her sexuality; Will, a thirty-three year-old teaching Sartre, Camus, Faulkner, and Shakespeare in a senior English seminar; Gilad, a student in Will’s class who, with Will, witnesses a man being pushed under a train at the subway.
The tentative and unclear thoughts of high school students is as frustrating to read as it was to experience: the cloudiness of motivations, of adult lives and decisions suddenly being thrust upon them, of the importance of their own place in a universe so small it includes only their friends and their parents. They tell us enough of what is going on in their heads that we believe there is little more there than what we are given.
It is the voice of teacher Will that makes us work: he gives us half-truths, possibilities for actions, and motivations that glance off the truth but that are not the truth. The death of his parents is one such possibility: both gone at once, suddenly. Will had left his wife then. But another reason for his actions might lie closer to watching a man randomly being thrown under a train in a Paris subway. He claims it has no effect upon him. It may be enough to make one think that one has little or no control nor impact on the direction of one’s life, so what does it matter? Will’s student, Gilad, makes the point that we should do just do the best we can and expect nothing in return. That is the human condition. We deserve nothing.
(view spoiler)[Perhaps this is why Will takes Marie, a student at his school, as his lover, even against his own better judgment. Marie is a typical teen, thinking that what she feels is the only way to look at an affair. If I say Marie seemed an unlikely choice, I reveal my own ignorance of sexual appeal. When Marie becomes pregnant, she is perhaps less thoughtful than she could have been about an abortion. Will allows Marie to make her own decisions, as he did when she called and came to his house the first time.
Will never explains himself. He is publicly revealed as a predator and is fired, but he leaves without apology nor explanation. We are to use his students’ comments regarding his classroom texts as guides to how he views his actions and inactions. Will did nothing when the man who spoke to him was murdered at the Metro. When confronted with a street demonstration, he “watches behind his sunglasses” but does not join. When violence breaks out, he speaks up but does nothing when he is spit upon for his intervention. He “has nothing else” in his arsenal. When his students challenge his willingness to act, he does not respond. He “pours the poison of his eloquence into their ears…” but cannot act himself. “Goodbye,” he thinks. (hide spoiler)]
This is a man facing the existential crisis and losing himself. Even his girlfriend thinks him a ghost. He claims to be pleased that his students adore him but he is empty, numb, vacant. The teenaged journal entries are trying but they reflect a childish truth. The deadness of Will’s world is terrifying.
Maksik uses whatever material is to hand to demonstrate his novelistic skills. He has the goods. Now, this reader hopes he extends his reach beyond the issues facing a wealthy international school and brings his novelistic and philosophical skill to bear on the larger questions that face us in the world as it is. After all, “to be or not to be, that is the question.” Once that question has been answered, one is either engaged or dead.
Maksik’s second book, A Marker to Measure Drift, faces those larger questions. Bravo!
Two points I must comment upon: one good, one bad. Midway, Maksik gives us one of the hottest sex scenes I can recall. It should go down in the annals. In the final scene, however, is an embarrassingly empty gesture with a gold Cartier pen and a plastic ballpoint. I didn’t like that as well, but we can’t always have it all. Keep your ears cocked for news of this man. He’s not lightweight.
It occurs to me that I am unsure, now, why this book is entitled You Deserve Nothing. I mean, why not We Deserve Nothing or I Deserve Nothing? Could it be that the people or persons he tries to understand by writing their point of view in his novel have had their repayment, explanation, and opportunity to defend themselves and he no longer feels obligated to feel badly or responsible? Curious...
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