Tuesday, March 12, 2013

You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

You live in one place.
Opening to
You Deserve Nothing
by Alexander Maksik
Just in case, I want you all to know that I thoroughly enjoyed You Deserve Nothing, Alexander Maksik's debut novel; I think it's terrific.  I think it rises above the usual cliches about charismatic teachers and their affairs, but the cliches are all there none-the-less.

You Deserve Nothing is about a high school English teacher who has an affair with a student.  Teachers often have affairs with their students, in books.  While I've never known a teacher who has had an affair with a student in real life, not with a current student, it's a fairly common trope in books about teachers.  Usually, it's a male teacher and a female student, though not always.  I've worked in education for over a quarter of a century now and can think of four teachers I've known who have become involved with a student, all of them with former students.  I could say five if I was willing to count rumors.  Two of these four first met at the college level.  To my knowledge, none of them began dating until after the teacher/student relationship had ended, two of them until several years had passed.  

William Silver, the main character of You Deserve Nothing, begins an affair after going out for drinks with a few of his students.  Do high school teachers anywhere go out for drinks with their students?  Even in Paris, where You Deserve Nothing is set, even among the well-heeled clientele of a private school, do teachers really do this?  It's like my theory on serial killers, you're much more likely to find one in a novel than you are in real life.  Much more likely.  

You will probably never find a novel about a teacher working with a full set of students.  It's too many characters, 30 to 40 in a class, five classes a day.  Instead, what you get is almost always a teacher and that one special group of students.  In Donna Tart's terrible, (yes, I said terrible) novel The Secret History, we get a mysterious professor and a very small, specially selected seminar, six students or so.  How many students did Robin Williams have in The Dead Poet's Society or Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?   Mr. Maksik's teacher, William Silver has a  group of ten in his senior seminar, but we see very little of the rest of his day.  He seems to teach only the one small class.  

It's a wonderful class, mind you.  I'd love to take it. I'd love a chance to teach it.  That it's in a private school for American students in Paris only makes it more exotic.  In books, a very high percentage of teachers work in private schools in wonderful places like Paris.  Even the horrible places are really kind of wonderful places.  William Silver's high achieving students stand out in sharp contrast to the group of London ruffians Sydney Portier faced in To Sir, With Love, though Sydney Portier kept his hands off throughout the movie.  Mr. Portier worked in the East End, true, but it was London's East End.  You'll have a hard time finding and American English major who'd turn that job down.

Still, I enjoyed the classroom scenes in Mr. Maksik's book.  William Silver is excellent at what he does, if a little bit too close to Miss Jean Brodie for comfort.  You might remember The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie from either the Muriel Spark book or the Maggie Smith movie version.  Miss. Brodie also had a very small set of special students.  Both Miss Brodie and Mr. Silver push their students to think about things in ways that make them uncomfortable, make them look at their lives and the place in society in ways their parents may not approve of.  Very much like the Robin Williams character in The Dead Poet's Society did.

They all  ended up out of work, too.

I suspect I could match the students in Mr. Maksik's book up with those in Ms. Spark's novel.  There's the usual assortment: a boy who admires Mr. Silver so much he's practically in love with him; a rebellious boy who comes to admire him in spite of Mr. Silver's flaws;  the girl who is not on the ball enough to see through his actions; the girl who hates him, insulted because he didn't choose her as his favorite.  You just know someone is going to end up dead or pregnant or both.  

So, you may be wondering how is it that I liked You Deserve Nothing?  

I admit, I thoroughly enjoyed the classroom sections of You Deserve Nothing.  These are likely guilty pleasure for me.  Mr. Silver's classroom is often exactly what I aim for with mine, students discovering ideas through their own exploration and discussion with the teacher serving more as a guide than as a director.  It's exactly what Socrates had in mind all those years ago.

Outside of the classroom, there is a tension to You Deserve Nothing even before Mr. Silver begins the affair that dooms his career.  Even before I knew the plot would take this turn, there was a strange kind of tension to Mr. Maksik's narrative.  I wanted to read more before I knew why I wanted to read more.  Much of this came from a push/pull attraction/revulsion kind of tension that really began to work its way under my skin early on in the novel.

So, although it contains many of the things that bother me most about novels about teaching, I ended up quite enjoying You Deserve Nothing maybe in spite of itself, maybe in spite of myself.

I'm looking forward to Mr. Maksik's next book.


Jackie Bailey said...

I loved this book and it was interesting to read your objections. When I lived in a small town some teachers used to go drinking with their pupils all the time. One of those teachers also left his wife and ran off with a 17-year-old girl. It made the main newspapers here in the UK, but I agree it isn't a freqent thing. (Is anything you read in a novel though? ) I can see how it happens - especially when you are in a small community (especially in a foreign city with only a limited number of people who speak your language) Most of the gossip about this book indicates that everything in the book is based on fact. Google the author's name and you'll find some scary rumours...

JoAnn said...

I listened to this book after reading Jackie's review. The audio production is nothing short of amazing, and I found the novel itself to be smart and well-written. However, the controversy surrounding the novel sickened me:

C.B. James said...

Well, I'll have to look this one up some more. Thank you both for your feedback.

C.B. James said...

Anyone who is interested should take a look at the Jezebel.com article. It's still a little too close to rumor for me, but it does shed some light on the book.

Anonymous said...

Oh gross! Oh ew! I was going to say how silly it seems that so many novels about teachers and students focus on affairs (which they do), but also point out that three of the teachers at my high school got in trouble for inappropriate sexual stuff with students. And then I read the Jezebel article and felt like the whole book is pretty gross to me now. Oh ew.