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The Daily: "Gets the details of Paris just right...not just entertaining, but confident."

Date: Aug 28 2011

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School for scandal

In novel ‘You Deserve Nothing,’ Paris is safer than going to class



Alexander Maksik’s debut novel — the first book from Europa’s Tonga imprint — is set at a posh international high school in Paris. It’s a character study of the token cool, charismatic teacher, William Silver. But the book opens with a quote from Albert Camus, “I do not want to choose between/ the right and the wrong sides of the world,/ and I do not like a choice to be made,” so we know that for all Silver’s gifts in the classroom, this story will be dealing with the flaws in his private life.


His colleagues and superiors think Silver’s methods of teaching are unconventional at best, but it is a rather envy-making classroom experience. Consider this monologue from Silver to his English class on the last day of school:


“You’ll forget most of what we’ve discussed in this classroom. You’ll forget Wilfred Owen and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and Thoreau and Emerson and Blake and the difference between romance and Romanticism, Romanticism and Transcendentalism. It will all become a blur, a swirl of information, which adds to that spreading swamp in your brain. That’s fine. What you must not forget, however, are the questions these writers compelled you to ask yourselves — questions of courage, of passion and belief. And do not forget this.”


“This” is what happens inside the classroom, that hour-long spell in which Silver manages to make bored teenagers read books, debate issues, and change over the course of just nine months.


Or, as Mia, a fellow teacher and potential love interest, puts it, “They love you. You’re a cult leader.” It’s true; when his students, encouraged by his talks on ethics and philosophy, see him at a protest against the war in Iraq — the book takes place in the early ’00s — they expect him to break up a near-riot.


The beloved teacher isn’t a superhero in his private life, which is a shock to Gilad, one of the students who worships him. Gilad, whose childhood has been spent shuffling between international cities — Dubai, Shanghai, Tokyo, Riyadh — finally finds a home in Silver’s classroom. He’s also one of the narrators, along with Silver and Marie, another student who takes a more jaded view of the Silver worship: “It’s like they were amazed that a teacher might go home and take a shower, drink a beer, go to parties, fall in love.”


Marie, who is blessed with “light green eyes and auburn hair,” has an affair with Silver. She may be the initial seductress, but both parties prove to be willing participants. But while we learn of the failures of Silver’s past relationships that shape his present actions, Maksik doesn’t really flesh out Marie’s motivations beyond vague notions of neediness and loneliness.


Marie’s confidante is Ariel: “She was my best friend. I hated her. That’s one of the strange things about those years. You spend all your time with people you despise.” Ariel is a loudmouth who can’t keep a secret, which doesn’t bode well for Marie’s secret relationship.


Maksik gets the details of Paris right: the door codes and dogs residing in cafes, terraces overlooking the Seine and morning commuters waiting for the Métro. It’s a thoroughly modern version of the City of Light, where there is eternal friction between the working class and the bourgeois. It’s a place where the relentless public displays of sex and romance can begin to weigh on you.


Not that Maksik lets Silver off easily. Like the novels he teaches in the classroom, there is no easy, short, simple version of the moral gray area he wades into. Whether he is a monster or deserving of his students’ admiration (or both) is a question Maksik lets us play around with, giving us ample time and reason to go back and forth.


“You Deserve Nothing” is not just entertaining, but confident. Maksik gives us three thoroughly unreliable narrators and a hero weighed down by flaws — and, like the best kind of teacher, lets us sort out the rest.

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