ALEXANDER MAKSIK’S debut novel is set in an international school in Paris in which charismatic teacher Will Silver inspires his students, but leaves school authorities aghast. For him, "literature is irrelevant unless its questions have some bearing on the lives of the readers. You think a student who reads Hamlet shouldn’t herself consider the idea of suicide? That when reading The Book of Job we shouldn’t consider the existence of God?" Upon the dichotomy of literature as life and life as a search for meaning, You Deserve Nothing captivates as both a lively study of existentialism, and as an insightful response to the tension between desire, the realisation of that desire, and the intellectual and moral forces that fuel that tension.
The novel is written from the perspectives of Will and two students, Gilad and Marie. Both, from dysfunctional backgrounds, choose to attach to Will: one as acolyte, the other as his lover. Both in their different ways declare their love for the teacher, one platonic/intellectual, the other carnal; and both in their different ways are disappointed in the object of their love. Gilad sees Will fail to tackle a racist at a peace rally and, consequently, regards his teacher’s failure to transpose classroom theory into battlefront action as hypocrisy; Marie senses her lover become a phantom even while love-making.
Ironically, Gilad, as a result of his self-discovery through Will, finally tackles his wife-beating father; and pregnant Marie, having denied Will thrice by lying to him about the secrecy of their affair, discovers the meaning of betrayal. As for Will, the book’s Camus motto says all: "I do not want to choose between the right and wrong sides of the world, and I do not like a choice to be made."
To be, or not to be; to choose, or choose not to choose, is the existential quandary from which Will finally emerges, declaring upon his enforced resignation from the school that "somehow I feel ready to live my life again". This lassitude, which in the classroom sees him function as a facilitator, a conduit through which his charges channel their ideas, is tested by some students: the truculent Ariel, a hedonistic vamp, and the rebellious Dubliner, Colin, who both in their worldly ways make the choice to reject the cloud with the Silver lining. Also the shadow that is Will continues to be prodded by the recurrent motif of homeless drunks, for whom choice is no longer an option, but whose appearances reinforce the suggestion that "the play’s the thing" to spur Silver "to live his life again".
You Deserve Nothing challenges the reader’s certainties about love and life, loyalty and betrayal. It intones an age-old anthem compelling the reader to question the sexual and moral mores of the day. Maksik addresses this question with refreshing precision, lightness of touch, and fidelity to subject. His triangular narrative scheme provides pace and a frame of reference for what might have become just another tale of teenage angst and campus couplings. You Deserve Nothing is a bravura performance by a new voice who has taken the existential squiggle of classroom life and imposed upon it order with a sleight of hand worthy of Sartre.