Alexander Maksik's You Deserve Nothing is a book about fame -- which is to say, it's a book about a young male English teacher at a small private high school. William Silver is a rock star at ISF, a school for international students in Paris. A female teacher refers at one point, with equal longing and mocking, to his students as his "panting groupies." Teenage girls center competitive, developmental sexual fantasies on him and boys with absent fathers see him as a substitute dad. Students who never cared about school before read and study obsessively, hoping to please him. He makes students feel every text they read is about their own lives. His students feel they are not learning how to read books, but rather how to live. They ape his mannerisms and invite him to their parties. He changes lives.
The phrase "you changed my life" is one that for many of us immediately conjures up the memory of high school. It's what we say at graduation to the teachers we liked best and as adults reminiscing about school. Teachers, explaining why they teach, use it in the other direction: Because I can change lives. "You changed my life" is the equivalent of an A+ for the person giving out the grades.
William Silver is told he has changed someone's life at least three times in the first twenty pages of You Deserve Nothing. If this phrase is a high school teacher's measure of success, Mr. Silver has succeeded astronomically. That he has changed students' lives is never in question. But whether doing so is a measure of success, or in fact necessarily positive -- where it is a goal toward which one should aspire -- is perhaps the central question of the book. Natural disasters and medical tragedies change our lives too, after all.
One of the lives William changes is that of Marie, the seventeen-year-old student with whom he has a sexual relationship. The affair, of course, throws him into conflict both with the school's administration and his own sense of morality. The plot is extremely well known, as familiar from soft-core pornography as from Dead Poets' Society.
It's a very, very simple book, easy to read and difficult to put down. It's a book about ambivalence, but even its ambivalences are simple. The prose is straightforward, and the characters' actions rarely surprising. At times this simplicity is unsettling or even frustrating, but it's ultimately one of the book's strengths.
Just because we already know something does not mean we are done struggling with it. We know the truths of adolescence -- friendships are brutal and more difficult than at any other time in our lives, sex is terrifying and not what our friends tell us it is or should be, and an insular social world makes insignificant things far too important. But that we already know these facts and can recite them in a laundry list of truths, does not mean they have ceased to resonate. The simplicity of You Deserve Nothing allows its story that kind resonance.
The book is told from three different perspectives: Will, the teacher; Marie, the student with whom he has a relationship; and Gilad, a student in Will's senior seminar. The changes in voice never seem stilted or forced, and yet are incredibly distinct. I was particularly stunned by Maksik's recognizable rendering of Marie. The teenage girl's experience of sex and love, of high school friendship and gossip is at once surgically accurate and wildly sympathetic. At one point Marie describes her relationship with her closest female friend: "She was my best friend. I hated her." The statement is simple and therefore stunningly compassionate. It lays the experience down on the page newborn-fresh, exact and unadorned. You can do nothing but enter the emotions.
By splitting the narrative between these three characters, Maksik creates a structure reflecting the phenomena of the rock star teacher. Will is the story's topic and its central figure, but the story does not belong to him. Will is a celebrity, a point of obsession, a celebrity in a tiny world. He objectifies himself as much as his students objectify him. By creating himself as an idol, he has taken advantage of his impressionable students, but at the same time has made his identity dependent on those students' approval. His private self becomes dependent on the reactions of people outside of himself. He is his own fiction. His descriptions of experiences outside of the classroom, up to and including his relationship with Marie, are blank and cryptic. Will has little identity beyond the successful one he has created for the classroom. The phrase "it was all I had," is repeated over and over in the text, referring to Will's ability as a teacher. Maksik demonstrates this empty-handedness both through Will's flat narration and through refusing to grant Will the exclusive narrative voice. Crucially, it is not Will's story, not fully. It is a story about Will that also happens to him, and a story of his actions happening to others. It is not Will's story because Will has not allowed it to be; he has given up his own narrative in order to change others' lives.
Just as Will is only really present when teaching, the classrooms scenes are far and away the most impressive, and most compelling, parts of the book. If you have ever been lucky enough to be in a small seminar class with this particular species of rock star teacher, the scenes will be instantly recognizable. Among other things, the pleasure of this book is to relive a few days in such classes. For me, at least, reading the classroom scenes was like visiting a place to which I had not realized I had been longing to return.
These journeys into nostalgia are exhilarating. The reader is seduced by Will's teaching as much as his students are: You Deserve Nothing made me want to reread Shakespeare, Camus, and the other texts Will teaches. The question with which the book confronts the reader dwells in that giddy classroom experience: Do the negative effects of Will's actions, the manipulation, even his relationship with a student, really overshadow or matter more than the effectiveness of his teaching? Lives can't be changed exclusively for the better, but we all still long for our lives to be changed. Teachers change our lives the way destructive love affairs do. The experiences that enlarge us always do so at a cost. Our choices are not easy, which is why the book's simple prose conveys such ambivalence. To tell a story without comment is to tell a story without easy answers.
Will's students apply literature's great texts to their own lives, throw themselves at the difficult questions posed in the texts, struggle with self-definition. One scene depicts a crucial classroom argument regarding a passage in Sartre: "man first of all... encounters himself, surges up in the world." Gilad parses the text back to Mr. Silver: "...the point when you suddenly understand, when you begin, when you can no longer pretend life is otherwise, when you realize the truth of the world." In adolescence, poised at the brink of adulthood, we look for gateways into the world, into selfhood, action. Mr. Silver's class, even his relationships with his students, becomes a way for them to enter the world. At one point he refers to one of his lectures: "Participate in the world. That tired speech." He is disillusioned by his teaching; eventually his students, too, become disillusioned with him. But, in the meantime, they begin to participate in the world.
We, any of us, are lucky to have these experiences by any means we acquire them. The same question is mirrored in Will's relationship with Marie. He is ambivalent, absent, and manipulative. He does not love her in the way teenagers are supposed to love other teenagers and adults other adults (both Will and Marie have relationships with partners their own age that are for different reasons abject failures). Nevertheless, her experience with him is one of tenderness and guidance, an initial sexual experience few teenagers are lucky enough to have. It is the beginning of adult experience; she too enters the world. Metaphors for first intellectual engagement are too easily and availably sexual, but that may be because in adolescence sexual and intellectual awakening are essentially the same experience: We enter a new, unmarked, adult world. It is both terrifying and wonderful. That we enter it at all feels nearly impossible. We need guides, gatekeepers, catalysts. That they be entirely good, entirely well intentioned, morally uncorrupt, may be too much to ask. More than that, it may be beside the point. Maksik's novel, with its incisive, large-hearted simplicity, leaves us with these important questions, reeling in the memory of what it means to be young and what it really means for someone to change your life.