Sunday, November 20, 2011

Alexander Maksik tells a depressing tale in an exciting way.

Alexander Maksik writes about high school, but his school is an international high school in Paris, and that changes everything, or does it?

You Deserve Nothing

The story of You Deserve Nothing (320 pages, Europa Editions, $15) centers on a charismatic high school instructor who teaches the choice senior seminar at the international high school in Paris. All the students are in Paris for various reasons, and they are more or less unhappy with their lot; but when they find themselves in Will Silver’s classroom, their lives change. They are exhilarated and they find that they are able to think in ways that they never realized that they could.

Will is great at bringing them out of themselves and giving them new voices by forcing them to articulate their own ideas. Maksik’s depictions of the classroom itself are really wonderful because it is possible to feel the productive tension that Will creates with these students.

We also get to know the different students and care about them: Gilad, the smart but reserved American who never feels quite at home; Colin, the Irish brat who is sometimes willing to challenge Will to his face; Ariel, a fashionable girl who has to be cured of her tendency to say “whatever”; and Abdul, an Arab student who has a hard time with the other students’ carelessness about God and the meaning of life.

Will manages to keep all these competing interests afloat and even to fight off the administration’s pressure to conform to the standard syllabus of high school literature classes. But instead Will wants to challenge his students, and they love him for it.

But in the end Will screws up, and he is dishonest both to himself and his students. He has an affair with a girl at the school. Admittedly she is not in his class, but she is underage, and she is also friends with Ariel and a former girlfriend of Colin’s; so there is little chance that this “secret” affair does not actually spill into his classroom.

Will is distraught about the affair, but he has it anyway, and Maksik is good at portraying the misery that attends such misguided sexual license. We also hear a lot from the young girl’s perspective. Marie has her own motivation and her deep feelings for Will, but she does not know anymore than he does what the consequences of their behavior will be.

Maksik is great at bringing out the disillusionment that all the students feel when Will Silver is exposed. He is also great at portraying Silver’s own misery. Sad, too, is the demise of the wonderful class where students were actually challenging their own limitations. But that starts to lose significance when their teacher turns out to be a louse.

Alexander Maksik

You Deserve Nothing is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.


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