You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

William Silver is the school celebrity. He’s the teacher that all the students look up to, and all the faculty loves. His lessons are performances that ask philosophical life questions to kids in a way that make them feel like he’s their friend.

Gilad is the quiet student that’s smart enough to challenge this teacher, but too young to really feel confident doing it. He craves his approval and sees the best parts of him. He also suffers from a horrible home life and a nonexistent social life.

Marie is pretty much your average girl. She’s got a best frenemy, a judgmental mother, and an absent father. But toward her last year of school she gets into an illicit affair with Mr. Silver.

Set in modern day France, You Deserve Nothing follows these characters and the goings on at the International School of France. It touches on the protests of American’s invasion of Iraq, the implications about human responsibility, and the ability to exercise your own freedom. It does this without shying away out of guilt, but still maintaining a lyrical, soft tone.

I thought the story was incredibly well written, had an excellent arc, and conveyed exactly the meanings Maksik meant for it to have conveyed. However, while looking at other reviews after having finished it there was a lot of anger directed at him because the story was based on his life. Maksik had an affair with one of his students that lasted over the course of a semester, until he was dismissed after she had an abortion. Each of the characters has a real life equivalent. Most of the situations and scenes in the story happened at some point in his life.

This isn’t a new practice in fiction. Plenty of great writers based their stories off their lives and people they knew. Nora Ephron, Jeanette Winterson, Sheila Heti. The list of autobiographical fiction runs long. A lot of the best ones are clever about hinting that there’s a blurred line there. Most paint the harshest picture of themselves and spare others in the process as a way of dealing with their memories. Maksik’s is interesting because he really drags “Marie” through the trenches with him. Also if we’re supposing there’s a real life “Marie,” there’s also probably a real life Gilad. He switches point of view between these three characters and gives himself permission to speak their thoughts. According to interviews, the real “Marie” wasn’t happy about this and felt violated by the whole thing. The publishing of the book became a topic around the school and brought back memories and gossip people were on the path to forgetting.

There’s also probably some legal issues. It’s pretty much illegal to defame a person’s reputation in a published work without their permission. Did he actually ruin her reputation? Probably not, especially since everything he wrote was true, but the line is still blurry on the ethics of it all. Is it the author’s way of processing his transgressions or is he banking on his experiences in exchange for literary prominence?

I had the opportunity to meet Michael Reynolds, the Editor-in-chief of Europa Editions. He talked a lot about the role of the editor and how in America, editors sanitize and buff out works till they’re shaved down, crystal versions of the author’s original piece. His goal was to do less of that, let writers write for themselves, and simply curate the best pieces. Maksik’s work is definitely well written and entirely, convincingly real, and despite the traumatic and emotional stress it may have caused, it’s still a good read.

“Find some people you give a shit about. Who care about you. Who are smarter than you are. Find a woman. Who laughs at you. Who’ll kick your ass out of the house. You find that woman and she’s the same woman who’ll throw herself in front of a truck for you? Well, then you’re somewhere.”


6 thoughts on “You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

  1. Oh wow, this book sounds incredibly intriguing and raw. I could see why a lot of readers would be angry at Maksik since it’s based off of Maksik’s previous relationship with a student. I don’t think I could read this book because I feel like I would become an angry reader myself – that being said, I’ll definitely keep this book in the back of my mind in case I ever become in the mood for it. Fantastic review, Alysyn! I hope you’re enjoying your grad program at NYU! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m definitely happy I read it first and then found out because that would’ve been in the back of my mind the entire time. At the same time, I didn’t want to leave that information out of my review because it’s the cause of a lot of the lower star ratings on Amazon & Goodreads. Thank you so much! I definitely am!

      Liked by 1 person

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