Somewhere Between Analysis and Rant: Thoughts on Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing
Last night (well, this morning), I finished reading Alexander Maksik’s YOU DESERVE NOTHING. Back in December, I blogged about the novel and the possible controversy surrounding it. There’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that it’s a roman a clef. Or, at the very least, heavily informed by the author’s experiences (although, not by his own admission). For anyone who doesn’t know, the character of Will Silver is a teacher at an American high school in Paris who basically stumbles into an affair with a student. (The tale alternates before Silver’s perspective, Marie the purposeful Lolita, and Gilad who may have creeped me out more than Silver.)
Since I have no proof or personal knowledge of Maksik himself (despite the severe feeling of ICK that surrounded me while reading), I want to talk about the novel itself. Note: I do want to point out that the comments on my original post were VERY interesting and informative. They’re worth a read.
Will Silver is the most passive character since Charlotte Temple. In the novel, Maksik makes it clear that Silver is this hapless passive guy, who things just happen to. He doesn’t set out to seduce Marie (she seduces him). In fact, he never seems to make contact with her on his own, merely responds to her nearly obsessive barrage of messages and calls. After an encounter on a dance floor, she asks him to whisper his number to her. SHE calls him, putting her in the position of the seducer. It also is a move that serves as an attempt to foist the blame onto Marie’s character. Given the imbalance of power between a teacher and a student, a seventeen year old and a thirty-three year old man – I’m not sure, as a reader, that I buy it. Then again, I am not the biggest fan of Nabokov’s Lolita, either. (Sorry, Nadika.)
One of the most suspect parts of Will’s characterization is how well he does his job. Over and over again, he’s portrayed as a rebel teacher, one page-ripping scene away from standing on a desk and reciting “Oh, Captain, my captain.” He changes lives and his students worship him, which leads to many reviews drawing a parallel to Keating’s character in Dead Poets’ Society. Except last time I checked, Keating didn’t find himself in bed with a student. As readers, we see Will’s character constantly battling the system of oppressive instruction (he wants to challenge beliefs! The administration disagrees), refusing to compromise what he feels is an essential approach to instruction. We’re supposed to cheer when he goes up against the administration. Except, I didn’t. I felt like there was no textual evidence to support the idea that Will was a great teacher. What did he teach anyone in his classroom? No lesson came from that room; the only lesson, I think, came from his fall from grace – which was that people are rarely what they seem to be. Things just HAPPENED to Silver, like things just happened to Charlotte Temple. It was frustrating, to say the least.
In Gilad, I think, the reader is supposed to find the culmination of Silver’s influence. Gilad comes from an abusive home, with a tyrannical father – who is physically and emotionally abusive. Eventually, Gilad stands up for his mother and himself, which is the revelatory moment. Its inception is also attributed, however slyly, to Silver. Personally, I found Gilad’s obsessive, stalker-y personality to be quite creepy. I assume that this characterization was meant to be off-putting – but I believe that he’s in love with Silver, although his character asserts his attachment isn’t sexual. What else does he bring to the narrative? I don’t really know, except that he’s a witness. He is the person who puts forth the idea of what is vs what we insist it is (this is illustrated with a doodle, then a doodle with a grid over it, which is relevant during a discussion about Sartre. This is an underlying theme of the novel. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the entire text is meant to serve as an example of WHAT IS. This reaffirms Will’s passive disposition, where things happen to him. Which brings us to my major qualm: the issue of agency.
Throughout the novel, it seems that Will Silver only makes TWO actual decisions (which is, amusingly, exactly what he criticizes his friend Mia for, in the beginning of the novel — her inability to act and decide; she merely suggests). One choice happens before the main events of the plot (it was to leave his wife, Isabella, and move to Paris after his parents died. It is interesting to note, however, that he cannot give a reason WHY he left her, even when pressed). The other decision is a soft choice. It’s not a demand, but it is certainly emotional manipulation and coercion. He tells Marie “that he didn’t think it was a good idea to have the baby,” while maintaining that he would “be there no matter what” (274). In the next section, told from Will’s perspective, we learn that Marie has decided to have the abortion. Clueless to the idea that she doesn’t really want to do it, he agrees – though the end result is that Marie seems to spend a lot of time comforting him. A great deal of her characterization, interesting, portrays Silver as being a ghost, “But I started to have the impression that I was making love to a ghost or a phantom or something. And more than once I felt that I could have been anyone. […] It was more a feeling, a sort of dark hum I didn’t want to listen to” (250). This small bit of dialogue again places the blame on Marie’s shoulders. She KNEW, but ignored her feelings. Basically, this is the literary equivalent of, “You knew what this was from the start.” As a reader, I found that off-putting.
At one point, she describes him physically as something like a walking corpse, “He looked terrible—pale and exhausted with such dark circles under his eyes. God he was thin” (287). Not only, however, does he appear physically dead, but emotionally as well. Will recalls it, “One Sunday morning we woke up and she said, ‘I love you.’ She shook her head. ‘I know you don’t love me. But I love you.’ ” (263).
But Marie recalls it in the context of death, “Will, I love you, I said and he looked like I’d told him the sky was blue. We made love afterward and maybe he was sweet to me but all I could think about was that expression and how he lay there not moving looking like he was dead.” (251)
From Will’s perspective, Marie knows that he doesn’t love her. From Marie’s perspective, she is making love to a man already dead. We, as readers, are meant to infer that she knew what she was getting in, as well as her refusal to properly assess the situation – again, lauded blame at Marie.
Of course, this all comes crashing down when someone (we never learn who) tells the administration about the affair. Will, who promised Marie to always be there, slips away quietly. In fact, it isn’t from him that she learns of his dismissal, but from her frienemy Ariel (who is repeatedly painted as the Villain, consumed by jealousy because of Marie’s relationship). From the moment of his departure from the school, Will vanishes completely. He ignores all Marie’s attempts to contact him. She practically stalks him, yet he cannot be bothered to speak to her – not even to tell her goodbye. Why? Because he left her a voicemail. Surely, after the demise of a relationship – any relationship, really, even an illicit one – a voicemail is a proper parting scene. (Note the sarcasm. That is cowardly, which is exactly what Will Silver’s character is: a ghostly man-child who has the emotional maturity of dirt. *ahem* Anger, rising.)
Consider, for a moment, the difference in perspective, regarding the voicemail. Marie conveys a brief message, “I listened to [the message] twice and then I erased it. Goodbye Marie, he said. I’m sure you’ve heard. I don’t think we’ll see each other for a while” (307). The major take away from that is goodbye. There’s nothing emotional about it. There’s no grief. No mourning. Nothing. It’s as Marie feared: he is a ghost.
From Will’s viewpoint, however, we get the supposed full account of the aforementioned voicemail. It, I suppose, is meant to tam down emotional response of the reader, “ ‘Marie, it’s me,’ I say. ‘I don’t know what’s next for you exactly but the weeks ahead will be horrible. I’m sorry that. You’re so much braver than I am. Anyway, Marie, it was coming. You knew that. So, here it is. And maybe, I don’t know, it’ll be a relief. Maybe, maybe. Please take care of yourself. We’ll see each other one day. But not for a while, I don’t think.’ (325). The full text of that voicemail sent me into a complete rage, because it served to reaffirm the idea that Marie KNEW how things were going to shake down, and she basically only has herself to blame for getting involved with a dead, ghost-man. He then, supposedly, give her the bullshit-carrot of, “We’ll always have Paris, and we’ll meet again someday.” Because nothing says, “I’m sorry I hurt you,” like withdrawing from a relationship – and leaving someone you cared about (?) holding the bag of dynamite. Will Silver goes on to pointedly NOT answer the question, when asked if he regretted his actions. This implies that Silver holds himself in a position of righteousness that suggests a special kind of hubris. “I am not to blame. This is how things are” might as well be the character’s mantra.
Marie’s justification of the ending events is both heartbreaking and alarming. At one point, Marie claims that “in the end the way he left was as good as any other. I like to think he did it for me, that he thought it was the best way” (309). As a person, I cannot abide that statement at all. No one who has had his/her heart broken would EVER utter those words. No one comes to terms like that, in the face of such a blatant lack of closure. NO ONE says, “Oh, he was just trying to protect me…by completely abandoning me.” So, I found that admission more rotten that something last scene in Denmark. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Because Marie’s perspective is told from a point further in time than the actual events. So, when as 22 year old Marie makes that statement? Supposedly, she’s had time to asset the events. The last thing she says is, “I still dream about him.” Here, I must admit that it’s plausible. Sometimes, a person gets stuck on the guy/girl who broke his/her heart the worst. Sometimes, that heartbreak reverberates through life, but I can’t reconcile the almost wistful, blameless nature of Marie. Does she still love him? Possibly. Who hasn’t harbored an emotional attachment to an asshole, far beyond a warranted time frame? But, as a reader, this characterization feels like a copout. It falls shorts of being believable.
Lastly, one must consider the title. Who, exactly, deserves nothing? The answer, according to the text itself, is everyone. Marie is left to pick up the pieces of her ruined life, alone, pining after a man who never really loved or saw her. Silver loses his job, his friends, and his reputation – and yet, we never learn what becomes of him. Everything HAPPENED to him, because of Marie. Yet, when he signs his resignation papers, he’s told he’s “free.” Interesting diction, because what is it he’s free of? Responsibility? The possible implications are alarming, because one might assert that he wouldn’t want freedom. He wouldn’t know what to do with it. When set free, Will Silver disappears completely.
All and all, the novel was well-written. It was compelling in a completely morbid way. It was, by itself, something that calls into question the idea of morality, power, responsibility, blame – and the idea that desire leads to downfall. What is truly interesting is that I did not LIKE any of the character. Silver was stuff so full of himself that one might call it self-aggrandizing cannibalism. Marie was a one-dimensional idiot who seduced a man – why? Because everyone else in the school wanted him? I never could figure it out. Then, of course, there’s Gilad whose obsessive nature gave me the heebie jeebies.
So, why did I finish the novel? Because I wanted closure. Because I hoped for some kind of transformation. But that’s the major problem with the book: no one changes. Sure, Gilad stands up to his father, but after that, his character disappears. We, as readers, don’t get to witness his reaction to Silver’s dismissal. Perhaps if we did, we’d see how it affected his world, his self. Perhaps he, too, would’ve been shattered by Silver’s vanishing (like, say, Mia – who may be even weaker than Marie’s character. She spends the last bit of the novel CRYING). The novel was compelling in the way people gape at train wrecks. I didn’t want to see how the events unfurled, but I couldn’t look away. Is that good literature? Maybe. Is it effective? Yes. That doesn’t mean we should canonize it, either.
Has anyone else read the book? Thoughts?