Alexander Maksik’s debut novel You Deserve Nothing reshapes an old story—predatory teacher and young student.
The matter of originality plagues all writers. The problem of what Umberto Eco calls the “already said” touches every facet of writing—the choice of diction, sentence, paragraph, character, setting, and story. Fortunately, originality comes in many forms—point of view, structure, style, to name a few—and over the centuries writers have made good use of all of these.
Alexander Maksik in his debut novel, You Deserve Nothing, (the first book from Europa’s new Tonga imprint run by Alice Sebold of The Lovely Bones) dusts off the tired story of predatory teacher and nubile female student and makes it new again by using multiple perspectives. What is achieved is the grander consequences of such a betrayal. Not only is the young high school girl’s life changed, but so are the students who revered and idealized the lecherous teacher.
Set in Paris at an international high school, the novel revolves around 33-year-old William Silver, a star teacher who makes literature—Sartre, Camus, Faulkner, Shakespeare, and Keats—come alive for a group of high school students who are, for the most part, cynical, sarcastic, and disengaged. The most lively scenes in the novel involve Silver in the classroom, firing off questions that provoke students to think. For instance, a discussion in the classroom about Sartre quickly leads to whether life has meaning and is there a God.
“Look, man. If there’s no plan for us before we’re born then either God doesn’t exist or he’s just fucking with us. Sorry.”
Silver shook his head, “Go on. Say what you have to say.”
The student elaborates. And still later, another student, Gilad, chimes in. “I guess because if there’s no God and we are free to make decisions then we’re also responsible for those decisions.”
Gilad, one of the first-person narrators, is a thoughtful, sensitive young man. Early on, he becomes enamored with Silver. “I was in love the way you are with an actor or a guy on stage with a guitar. It’s instantaneous, a combination of jealousy and desire. Need. You want to change yourself entirely.” Maksik smartly raises the stakes by making Gilad’s home life treacherous—his father beats his mother and Gilad is powerless to stop it. In this subplot, Silver implicitly becomes a father figure for Gilad. So when Silver begins his fall from grace, it is particularly devastating. For Gilad, Silver first stumbles from his pedestal when Gilad attends an anti-Bush, anti-war protest, which turns violent. Gilad spots Silver at the protest, and he expects Silver to intervene. Throughout the semester Silver has advocated traveling the “distance between desire and action,” because “that’s what separates the brave among us.” Silver does nothing more than shout, “Arrêté,” and when a thug spits in Silver’s face, Silver walks away.
Marie, the high school girl with whom Silver has the affair, is the third first-person narrator. Maksik draws a somewhat predictable vulnerable, young woman who has recently discovered her sexual allure. “Anyway, I know how attractive I am. I mean to what degree I’m attractive. I knew then too. I’m not spectacular and then in high school I was pretty much the same. I had a body that other people liked but it wasn’t the one I wanted.” She sets out to seduce Silver and he easily succumbs.
What remains vague throughout, and in my view a missed opportunity for infusing more originality, more character development, is Silver’s motivation. Over the course of the novel, Maksik dribbles in Silver’s backstory—his parents recently died; he left his wife soon after his parents were killed and came to Paris—but it remains unclear why Silver tosses a match to his life. The reader is left to ponder causation, which, in this case, invites generalizations.
Still, the larger ramifications of Silver’s transgressions make this a worthwhile read.
Says one student after watching Silver walk away from the threatening thug: “…I was mad. I was so fucking mad. Just walked away like that. I expected, I don’t know, something more. More… more…” he trailed off.
“Heroics,” I said.
“Heroics,” he nodded.