“Well-written and loathsome” is not often how I find myself making a recommendation but… You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik deserves it. The book is about a charismatic American high school teacher in Paris who has an affair with a student, gets her pregnant and gets fired, told in gorgeously intertwined POV threads between the teacher, the girl, and a male student who worships the teacher. Its claim to fame, besides being a very good novel, is that the author was also a teacher in a Paris high school who had an affair with a student and was fired, and former students have come out to say that the book is basically all true. Such things happen, and dissecting them can make good literature. The teacher falls victim to something that’s not quite a great passion, call it maybe a sexual urge for self-destruction or a moral urge for not-giving-a-fuck. Or maybe that’s what a great passion looks like. Here he is just before the fall, in prose of representative beauty:
Waiting…in front of the building I was taken by the same kind of euphoria I’d felt repeatedly over the last few weeks—that sense of being precisely where I wanted to be, of having made it through. The wind rushing harder and harder up the river seemed to lift me and I was overcome with a sort of impatience that was only loosely connected with the night.
Later that night he gets with the girl for the first time, almost at random. It’s not a particularly happy union. Here he is, later, about to text her after a period of resistance and disinterest.
A local drunk was sitting alone in the entryway of an apartment building across the street. He cracked his head against the door. Over and over again he snapped his head back. As hard as he tried he couldn’t seem to knock himself out. I was holding the telephone.
Smash your head into a wall, or call the girl? Same diff. I haven’t read a better illustration of the destructive impulse behind this kind of affair. I adored this book for the polished surfaces, the crimes of passion, and the intensity, intelligence and controlled anger of Maksik’s prose. The characters speak and think in a three-dimensional stream-of-consciousness that spins with information, experience, dialog, setting, memory. Making this look so easy and flow so naturally is the hardest thing in the world to do. I can open the book and find passages like this at random:
He folded his arms across his chest and waited. I watched him up there, that familiar expression, the cocky demeanor, the posture of expectation, of control. He’d been charming, had spoken with those irregular pauses, a slight grin when he suggested the possibility of savoring the novel. And again the restrained smile, amused with himself. I raised my hand. He faced me and gave a slight bow. “Gilad,” he said. “Tell us.”
The words are simple, but the sentences slip all over the place. Between the lines is an entire world of nuance involving the relationship between the resentful, disappointed, seduced student and the teacher who knows just how he comes across, a man timing his pauses to impress teenagers. Incidentally, the quote above is from the worshipful male student, whose infatuation with the teacher and inevitable disappointment forms the third corner of the love triangle between man, girl, and collateral damage. The book’s epigraph is a quote from Camus that reads, “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.” Maksik uses existentialism to examine the affair (the teacher is teaching it; there are many parallels with The Stranger) and seems to say that there is no right and wrong here, that life is fundamentally absurd and meaningless, and that each person’s responsibility is to create himself according to his own lights. In this fashion the affair is whatever we make of it, or whatever the characters do. The teacher, at least, is not sorry. In the very end, when he is being exposed and fired, someone asks,
“I wonder—perhaps I don’t understand—but is it true that you’re not sorry for what you’ve done? Morally. Are you sorry? I mean fundamentally. Do you regret what you’ve done here? Or are you utterly unrepentant? Do you understand what you’ve done is wrong?”
In the next scene, which is the last paragraph of the book, the the teacher says, “I think I’m ready to live my life again.” This does not sound repentant. At this point we’ve discovered his back-story of a broken marriage and a family tragedy, which invites the interpretation that possibly what’s happened in his life before was the pointless and absurd part, and that the affair, however ill-fated, is something he needs to do to create himself. It might be healing despite nothing about it seeming particularly so—another proof of existentialist absurdity. So, back to loathsome. I had a problem with the sections written from the girl’s perspective. She’s portrayed as a confused and somewhat damaged kid with a beauty-issues mom, an absentee father and a rapey experience with an early boyfriend. Nonetheless, she has a hot sexual awakening with the teacher, who she lusts for in a fairly simple way. Knowing something about promiscuous young girls and sexual abuse, I find this narrative unconvincing, lacking in complexity, and rich in authorial self-delusion. Even so, the rest of the book is so good that it might have drawn little more than an eye-roll if the girl the character was based on hadn’t come forward to condemn Maksik’s use of her story and identifiable personal detail. Here’s the relevant snippet of the Jezebel story:
The real-life “Marie,” whom I corresponded with via email, said that she is disgusted that he is getting literary kudos for re-telling her very real story. She said Maksik included a number of very personal things she told him in confidence in the book, and that she has worked for the past five years to move past the shame and guilt she felt as a result of the affair only to re-encounter it all again in a widely praised novel. Maksik never asked her for permission.
I don’t think he needed her permission to write a novel, but I am sure that these are not the words of a woman who had an uncomplicated hot sexual awakening one semester with a teacher at the school. Knowing that, it’s painful to read passages like this:
“At some point he touched me. He came forward and slid his hands into my hair and then it was over. I mean never in my life have I felt so out of control as I did with him. It isn’t as if he was some big super-masculine guy who just wrapped me up and took me away. But there was something about him I swear to God. … And then he kissed me the way he kissed with that soft slow fucking tender gentle you’re the love of my life way so that I could barely stand.”
It’s a novel. This doesn’t have to be true, but it has to get at truth, and though this is a lovely scene and a hot kiss, it doesn’t get there for me. Interestingly, You Deserve Nothing‘s follow-up, A Marker To Measure Drift, just came out, and this time has a female protagonist as well—a black Liberian woman, no less. I’m excited to read it. You Deserve Nothing was so thoughtful, well-written and intense that I want the Marie POV to be an aberration, a necessary mistake along with the whole train-wreck affair. I like makers of mistakes. I am hopeful. What are the chances?