You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

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Alexander Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, is due out soon (July 30) from Knopf. It follows 2011’s You Deserve Nothing (Europa Editions), an often lyrical and always tightly plotted and controlled novel. It’s also been the source of some controversy: students from a school in Paris that employed Maksik have claimed that the book is very nearly a memoir, and that the young woman on whom a character in the book is based feels ill-treated by this sequence of events. This has raised a range of ethical questions, perhaps the least evenly addressed of which is to whom does fiction belong? Who has the right to tell a story? It seems to me that Maksik is on firm footing here, at least. The remaining ethical issues aren’t mine to judge. 

I don’t know Mr. Maksik. I know the relationship depicted in his book only through a combination of hearsay and fiction. It’s seldom wise to trust either of those as a depiction of actual events. That said, some version of those events appears to have happened. In a recent interview with Guernica, his comments suggest that he was prepared for the controversy. “What happened in Paris was never a secret. I lost my job, a job I loved, in a very public way.” What I can say with considerably more confidence is that the relationship depicted is complex and troubling. It’s to Maksik’s credit that he doesn’t flinch in the face of that complexity.

The idea that Maksik presents Will as admirable, let alone heroic, is either naïve or dishonest, and quite possibly both. Will falls well short of the lofty expectations students have of him on a number of occasions, and in their presence, no less. He grasps at a way to remake those expectations, and loses the respect and trust of at least three students depicted in the book, Mazin, Ariel and to an extent, Colin, who he’d won over in spite of early resistance. The actual aggrieved former students appear to have read with an eye on events as they knew them and little to no attention to the subtlety with which Maksik builds character in the novel. Will appears to be a man bobbing in the waves to those around him, but it gradually becomes apparent that he’s on the verge of drowning, that for all his charisma and energy in the classroom, his life lacks a center.

In fact I have very little interest in this controversy, but I would’ve felt irresponsible ignoring it completely. From outside the situation, the novel’s the thing, and on that score Maksik more than delivers. He told Guernica, “I’m happiest when I’m immersed in a moment of sensual experience,” and his prose could serve as Exhibit A:

The quiet of a school emptied for the summer is that of a hotel closed for winter, a library closed for the night, ghosts swirling through the rooms.

There is the quick disintegration. The bell rings and the whole thing explodes into the bright day. You walk into the sunshine, dazed by the light.

If Will is indeed a “life changer” as one colleague calls him early on, it’s perhaps not in the way we initially think, and Maksik is in no way blind to this slippage. He leads his students through discussion after discussion based on rigorous thought, only to leave his most lasting impression via experience, via feeling. I’m not conflating Will and Maksik here; the writer appears simply to have illustrated in fiction a divide which troubled him in life, and to have done so with striking results.

The novel unfolds over the course of several months, from the end of one academic year to a point part of the way through the next. Will’s alienation everywhere but the classroom becomes clear, despite his love for Paris. He’s left his wife in America and gone abroad in search of something, or fled following his parents’ death. He isn’t particularly forthcoming on this point, though the sense gradually emerges that there’s not much more he could usefully say on the subject. He doesn’t fully understand why he’s gone so far, or why he’s pushed that first wife entirely out of his life. These impressions are supplemented by two other voices: Gilad, an outstanding student of Will’s who gets swept up by his presence in the classroom, and Marie, with whom he has an affair, albeit one he seemingly stumbles into rather than one he actively seeks. Gilad is a thoughtful voice, a young mind just making sense of many conflicting threads in his own life. In some respects his eventual disappointment in Will almost feels greater than Marie’s, who confides that she still dreams of Will after he’s gone. As for Marie, Maksik employs her voice judiciously, and he grounds her appeal against her misgivings about her appearance and the superficial nature of friendships with other young women her age. She often seems brave and self-possessed, if also reckless and prone to the sort of overreach we so often are in young love. She’s a straightforward and sometimes tart counterpart to Will, who often feels searching and unsure of himself. The sum of these voices is a picture of a man on the verge of something, though whether that something will be admirable, or even good, is unclear. Maksik handles that ambiguity with great deftness, foregrounds it against the appeal of the physical world around him, a side which often seems to fortify Will more than anything else.

Certainly there are echoes of writers like James Salter (Maksik wrote a brief appreciation of him recently) and Michael Ondaatje, but Maksik balances that lyricism against the other, plainer-spoken voices. Neither does he force the lyrical tone at inappropriate moments. There’s a remarkable degree of control here for a first book, and I dare say Maksik meets the goal he half-seriously remembers in his Salter piece: “a response to…a glut of ironic, glib and self-referential writers who seemed happily disconnected from bodily experience, guided by the notion that thought, not feeling, was the way into art and the way into living.”

Maksik remembers Salter writing to him that, “These natural things don’t ever bring sadness. There may be some melancholy in rain. Snow can make you pensive. A big storm is one of the most thrilling things in life. Sex brings sadness, afterwards, a kind of desolation, but where is the remedy for sex? If I make any argument, which is anyhow only implicit, it is: Try to be a man.” Implicit in Salter’s counsel is the sense that this ultimate goal is not one likely to be achieved without missteps and regrets. I’ll leave aside the question of how well Maksik’s own life corresponds to this dynamic; I know too little of it to comment fairly, and Maksik himself might well note that it’s a work in progress. But You Deserve Nothing is a finely drawn portrait of a man’s life as he approaches a critical checkpoint. Will leaves the school he’s come to love, in disgrace. Yet even then there is hope for renewal, for a fresh chapter: “The moon is a bright crescent in the cold evening sky and somehow I feel ready to live my life again.” It’s an unexpected note, a moment of resilience at a dark time, but to Maksik’s credit it feels inevitable as well. He’s set a high bar for A Marker to Measure Drift, but something tells me he’ll clear it with room to spare. 

One thought

  1. One weird thing to consider about the ending…. If he is indeed writing about his own life he creates a loop, because the character would move off to write about his experiences and thoughts about the school and the scandal. Instead of moving away, he retreats back.

    And in a way this makes sense because we often go back to bad moments in our lives and try and to make it fit some sort of narrative frame. As The Last Psychiatrist points out, people tend to his shameful moments by offering a competing narrative. More on that point below:

    http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2010/12/infidelity_and_other_taboos_me.html

    So instead of shamefully being kicked out of school for sleeping with a student, Silver/Maksik is set free… to inevitable literary fame and glory.

    ***

    A note on Gilad’s disappointment in Silver… it’s sort of telling that it’s because of Silver’s behaviour at the protest and not because he slept with a student. It’s also short-lived. His anger fades after Silver acknowledges Gilad’s points in class (pg 224). It also morphs into something at the end of the novel — how people shouldn’t have expectations of other people. (pg 298).

    (And there’s something laughable about Colin’s reaction, which is basically that Silver could have slept with someone better than Marie. And he’s not talk about adult women. “[Y]ou see the way the girls here follow him around, the guy could have anyone he wants, so why does he choose her?” pg 296).

    To be honest, I would have been more interested seeing the story through the eyes of Mazin. The character worships Silver at the start of the novel, but his behaviour changes after he hears about the affair. Unlike Colin and Gilad, who are still interested in Silver’s views of them (pg 298), Mazin appears to have grown beyond Silver’s reach. (Can’t help but think that there was an actual Mazin, and Gilad was Maksik’s attempt to re-write his relationship with the guy.)

    For the most part, though, you can almost divide the characters in an interesting way in the novel. Anyone who is in anyway likeable accepts the affair and doesn’t really condemn Silver for it. Gilad and Colin, don’t hate Silver for it. (Colin’s a borderline character — he sexually assaults Marie and threatens Ariel in class… but he’s Gilad’s friend… and Ariel’s so abrasive that the reader’s almost pushed to taking his side when Colin threatens her… a point that irritated me). Marie doesn’t hate Silver for it, or for absolutely abandoning her at the end. She even imagines her father, the one person in her family she likes, would have approved if he knew. Ms Keller doesn’t say anything bad about Silver after the affair is revealed (odd considering her angry reaction at the start of the book when Mickey Gold acts inappropriately towards a student). Who are the people who are nasty about it? Ariel, who’s abrasive and a hypocrite (Ariel wanted to sleep with Silver at the start of the novel). Ms. Moore, who’s shown to be officious Ms Carver.. the math teacher pretending to be a councilor. Al Maddy, who’s shown earlier trying to bend the curriculum in his son’s favour.

    Anyway, it was interesting to read this novel and Alison Espach’s The Adults, which also deals with a student sleeping with a teacher, Mr. Basketball. The student’s reaction, and inevitably disappointment, rang true in The Adults… or at least more true than Marie’s fond memories.

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