Existentialism is popularly mistaken for a kind of weary pessimism, a peculiarly French habit of puffing a cigarette and waving the world away. Alexander Maksik knows better. He uses his debut novel, You Deserve Nothing, both to re-introduce the original meaning of existentialism, and to critique it as a way of living in the present day. Remarkably, he achieves both of these brainy goals with a sexy, enjoyable story.
An American teacher in Paris at a high school for foreign kids, Will Silver is brilliant, charismatic, and adored by his pupils. But he has a dangerous effect on them, especially those in his senior seminar, which focuses on Sartre, Camus, and the old Paris café scene. One student, Gilad, begins to idolize Will. Another, Marie, draws Will into an ill-fated affair. Told in alternating chapters by three characters, You Deserve Nothing dramatizes the subjective nature of our most indisputable actions, and demonstrates the impossibility of finding, or being, a role model. The story moves briskly, and the narrators—ostensibly recalling these events a few years later—explain themselves so fluently that it’s easy to forget this is a novel of big ideas.
I pushed back onto the dance floor searching for Mia and found Ariel’s friend. I couldn’t remember her name. She smiled without hesitation, without artifice or experiment.
She danced and I followed her into the center of the room, surrounded by what felt like thousands of people. She pushed tight against my cock, which hardened immediately. When she felt it against her, she pushed with more force, bent her knees and slowly, expertly glided her ass against me.
“Do you know who you’re dancing with?” I asked.
She turned to face me, “Yes, Mr. Silver. Do you know who you’re dancing with?”
As they wrestle with the tenets of existentialism—attempting to take full responsibility for their actions and the meaning of the lives—each character remains constantly, acutely aware of the clichés they are reenacting. Will knows that teaching is a performance, and he worries that he has played the role of the inspirational figure too convincingly. Marie knows her affair with Will is childish and doomed, but she gives in to her passions. Gilad understands that no one can tell you how to live, yet he venerates the person who taught him that. The novel has its cake and eats it, too—getting us excited with the affair and the classroom drama, and prodding us to reflect on them as they unfold.
Critics have suggested that You Deserve Nothing is Albert Camus’s The Stranger for dummies. They’re wrong. That’s like saying Back to the Future Part II is Back to the Future for dummies. The Stranger is a blueprint for You Deserve Nothing, sure. But it’s also a subject that You Deserve Nothing re-opens for discussion. (If we’re looking for an imitation of The Stranger, we should turn to The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint.) You Deserve Nothing doesn’t imitate the great existentialist writers; it reanimates them. And its story is more accessible and Hollywood-ready than Camus or Toussaint. For anyone but a stone-cold philosopher, that’s a good thing.