A Review: You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik
Big parts of this piece I made up. I didn’t want to say that, but the editors are making me, because of certain scandals in the past with made-up stories, and because they want to distance themselves from me. Fine.
— John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Violence of the Lambs”
I purchased You Deserve Nothing a few days before the troublesome Jezebel story broke: it’s not fiction, it’s true! Alexander Maksik had an affair with a student in Paris! Let outrage ensue.
Truth is a tricky thing. Maksik, Europa Editions (his publisher), and the American School of Paris, from which Maksik was dismissed as a teacher in 2006, declined to comment on Jezebel’s story. What we have are the words of some students, and, after reading the article’s accusations, I wonder why we choose to trust these youths as reliable journalistic sources but do not trust that they can make informed sexual decisions. When the school administration uncovers the student-teacher affair in You Deserve Nothing, they assume that the teacher “took advantage” of his impressionable (weak) student. The school therapist meets with Marie, the student, who remembers their sessions as such:
She kept saying it, He needed to assert his power. He took advantage of you. Do you understand? You must understand that. You have to understand it for you to heal.
Marie does not understand it, and the author makes it difficult for the reader to understand either. We are aware that Will loves the power of teaching. “All that attention, it’s hard to resist,” he admits. “You know that the subject you teach isn’t nearly as important as how you use it.” If Will, or Maksik for that matter, took it upon himself to teach more than English literature to a student, is it possible to judge whether that was an assertion of power or an extension of teaching or simply a man caring about a younger woman?
Maksik has crafted distinct, relatable characters and an admirable novel, fact or fiction. The narrative leaps back-and-forth between three characters, who chronicle their experience of that defining year. Marie the student, Will the teacher, and another student, Gilad, reflect on their time at the International School, France (ISF) and one truth emerges: they were tremendously lonely and needed each other. Gilad, a recent transfer, worships Will as much as every other student. Will, ISF’s prince among stodgy, tired teachers, instructs his students to think not just to read or to recite. We witness two sides of Will, a character so rich and so distressed that I have no trouble believing in his autobiographical essence. Will loves himself as a teacher. He understands the students’ adoration, bathes in it. But outside of the classroom, he expresses mostly contempt for himself and the life he has created. He abandoned a wife in America several years ago, and the memory of her haunts his solitary moments. Even at 33, after ten years of teaching, he cannot let go of his “plans for escape, for a new career … or any of the other fantasies [he] used to avoid the apparent permanence of [his] present life.” Whatever hero his students see, Will, the author insists, is just a man.
Yet, Maksik seems to want his readers to adore Will, too. Not as the students do—the students see a role model, glimpse a god. Readers encounter a man who is a model of our doubts, the epitome of sins that we dream of and never effect. I am reminded of Emma Straub’s story “Some People Must Really Fall in Love” (from her wonderful collection Other People We Married) in which a female professor lusts after a freshman student. Straub captures the same question of sex and morals, even allows her professor to stalk the young man in the town mall. “Some People Must Really Fall in Love” represents the thought; You Deserve Nothing represents the action. Will may not be the hero that his students see, but he is a keen representation of man’s fall from goodness. Near the novel’s end, the president of ISF’s board asks Will: “Do you regret what you’ve done here?” Will leaves the room without answering. It is clear that he does not, at least no more than he regrets every other bit of his life. Will is the readers’ anti-role model, not the person we want to be but the person we fear lurks inside of us. He is the guilty voice that says Yes.
I could argue that there are power imbalances in most relationships, that the age of consent in France is 15 (Will’s actions may be questionable but not criminal), that Marie pursues him. But I do not wish to defend Will or Maksik or anyone who has engaged in a lurid, lopsided affair, only to defend the novel, which is finely crafted and immensely engaging. Questions of guilt, morality, and choice will linger long after reading it.
After all, fictions can be problematic. They may contain actions and beliefs that we would rather not read about or watch: rapes and misogyny, animal cruelty and racism. We all must decide for ourselves if we can enjoy a work that contains problematic elements. But a person who enjoys a work of fiction then alters his/her opinion when a problem emerges—this, I cannot understand. I have witnessed readers on Goodreads retract their 4-star reviews of You Deserve Nothing after the fact v. fiction question arose, as though this news soiled the novel. I get it: we don’t read fiction in a vacuum. But if you enjoyed the novel, you enjoyed the novel. Jezebel’s unconfirmed story shouldn’t affect the book’s inherent merit. Let us, consumers of truths and lies, remember and repeat this line from a Social Justice League article titled “How to be a fan of problematic things”: “Liking problematic things doesn’t make you an asshole.”
As you may have guessed, I do not care much whether or not the novel has factual roots, whether or not Maksik interwove his life’s facts and his novel’s fictions, and I did not read You Deserve Nothing as a book about a student-teacher affair. Rather, the novel tells a story about how loneliness can grip us—“the familiar crush of isolation”—and love can cripple us. Any of us.
You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik
Europa Editions, August 2011
ISBN: 9781609450489. 336 pgs.