Camus by numbers (in a good way): You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

3 Apr

You Deserve Nothing by Alexander MaksikI’ve just heard that Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing was on Sunday’s TV Book Club. Unfortunately I missed the show, but I read the book last year and really liked it. Set in Paris, it’s a cleverly told, elegantly expressed story that explores the battle between morality and free will (in a Not Lame kind of way). Does it make sense to stop yourself from doing something because you know it should be wrong? Can a good person do something bad without being driven by external factors? If you found yourself at turning point, how would you react? Rights, wrongs and lot of existential sub-tones made this a captivating read for me. Plus I tend to be a sucker for any novels set in Paris. Here’s my review that featured in a mag last year…

I’m always keen to read books recommended by my favourite authors, and this compelling debut comes with a particularly exciting stamp of approval – bestselling writer Alice Sebold hand-picked it to launch her new boutique publishing imprint, Tonga, in the US.

Set in an international school in Paris, the story centres round William Silver, a charming young literature teacher who uses unconventional methods to engage his students in passionate debates on everything from Sartre to religion, truth and morality. He’s adored by impressionable student Gilad, and desired by countless female pupils, including headstrong Marie. But Will doesn’t live up to the ideals he promotes, and temptation will cause his life to unravel at breakneck speed.

On the face of it, this could sound like an age-old story of teacher/pupil power abuse. But through literary references (Shakespeare, Camus, Faulkner) and a mixture of narrative voices (the story is told by Will, Marie and Gilad), Maksik forces us to question whether anything is ever really that simple. His teenage characters are brilliantly complex, their voices portraying a convincing mix of bravado and insecurity that draws comparison with The Catcher in the Rye. But it’s Will who’s the real enigma- unable to apologise for his actions and never once trying to justify them, he often bears resemblance to Camus’ anti-hero, Meursault.

You Deserve Nothing is a bold choice for Sebold – fans of the sentimental, dream-like essence of The Lovely Bones will be struck by Maksik’s stripped back prose and the quietly foreboding intensity of the subject matter. But it’s a necessary vehicle for Maksik’s weighty central motif: how should we live our lives, and by whose ideals? Prepare to be left with more questions than answers.


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