Saturday, September 6, 2014

You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

You Deserve NothingMaksik’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)

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...

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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