This is a novel so rivetingly plotted and beautifully written that you forget its shopworn premise ... Early on Mr. Maksik’s echoes of Camus are faint, but later, when he paraphrases and quotes directly from The Stranger the parallels between Will and Meursault become nearly impossible to ignore. The novelist is not only modernizing The Stranger but demonstrating its enduring relevance ... Where Mr. Maksik’s tale is headed may seem obvious. Nevertheless, he writes about the moral ambiguity of Will’s circumstances with dazzling clarity and impressive philosophical rigor ... With Camus, simple, declarative sentences can make for a certain deadness in the reader, mirroring Meursault’s, but here they create nerve-racking tension ... The novel’s very title serves as a tart reply both to the school administrators, who feel that Will owes them an explanation, and to Mr. Maksik’s readers, who may think they deserve a more satisfying moral or resolution than the one provided here.
All three narrators recall events that happened four years ago in short, unadorned sentences (apart from Will's classroom speeches, which sound like they came from Dead Poets Society via What Colour Is Your Parachute). But as Camus comes into the novel, Maksik's debts multiply: the simple prose style, the unapologetically unexplaining narrators, the lover called Marie, the notion of the tragique solaire, the first lines of L'étranger. Even the opening chapter turns out to be cribbed from one of Camus's essays. The borrowing is done unimaginatively: each reference used is given, teacher-like, later in the book. You Deserve Nothing could do with restraint elsewhere, too: by page 100 we have had a teacher-pupil affair, domestic violence, a murder and a discussion about the existence of God. Although the pages turn easily, you can't help being reminded of all that Camus did with just a knife and the sun.
The 'cool teacher who opens minds' narrative is now looking a little tattier round the seams than any garment such a teacher would wear. But Alexander Maksik has given it a mesmerising reboot here ... At first, it all seems terribly French ... But the three parallel narratives are so delicately, hypnotically paced that it is not long before cracks start to appear. And what cracks they are ... what Maksik has created with You Deserve Nothing is a story that is as fresh as it is old; a story of complicated emotions, simply told. It deftly conjures the very best of dazzling teen inspiration as well as the very worst of crippling teen alienation, while remaining a very adult novel. It reminds the reader how powerful ideas and literature can be – not just by creating a memorably complex character in Will, but with some stunning prose of its own as well.
Maksik...finds himself in a...mire of questions about authenticity and authorial licence. The issue seems to be that You Deserve Nothing puts the veil of fiction on events that are not only true, but ones that might be deemed morally objectionable ... Maksik chose to write in the voices of all three characters – Silver's, Gilad's and Marie's – which provides the novel with a richly layered sense of diversity and narrative ambiguity; it is also this choice that has Maksik's detractors up in arms about appropriation of voice ... It is absurd to place a work of art under an exclusive banner marked either fact or fiction. Novelists are constantly fictionalizing their lives; we either recognize ourselves in their words or we don't. Indeed, for many fiction writers, life and art are indistinguishable. In this reviewer's opinion, it matters little how a work is categorized; what matters more is that we pay attention to it.
On the surface, You Deserve Nothing might sound like another serving of expatriate wine-and-cheese, in which the pseudo-worldliness of Diane Johnson meets the Dead Poet’s Society. Fortunately, Mr. Maksik largely avoids these clichés by refusing to flatter his characters and by putting some of Silver’s lofty ideas to the test. He writes about both the uses and limits of literature when confronted with the messiness of life ... You Deserve Nothing is a promising début. Alexander Maksik is a skilful writer, and this novel shows a commitment to serious literature.
...[a] swift, dense and generous novel ... I enjoyed, admired and am moved by this first...novel. It helps that Alexander Maksik loves Paris without gooeyness; he brings a fresh perspective to a familiar passion ... Maksik, in his account of adolescent yearning and grown-up fallibility, does something like what Hemingway did in his non-debut memoir, A Moveable Feast - he vividly evokes a destination for generations of foreign seekers. He tells a rapid story about avid schoolkids and a predatory teacher, but respects both the kids' ebullience and charm and the older man's troubled soul ... Out of a familiar dilemma, Maksik has made something fresh, bracing and full of feeling.
The arrangement of these multiple viewpoints is revealing without being formulaic, while the prose is cool, direct and empathetic. If the book has a weakness, it’s that it shows off its philosophical and literary touchstones too obviously, notably in the repeated references to Hamlet and Camus. But as a study of idealism and fallibility it succeeds brilliantly.
...a general outline of the novel sounds, on its face, a little worn-thin. And, on its face, it is ... The central power-dynamic itself — teacher seems superhuman then is revealed to be a normal human — is, well, boring. But that makes it all the more amazing when Maksik somehow pulls it off ... the inability to share anything resembling a unified experience is both what makes this book interesting, as well as what tests the ideological strength of the Modernism that this book relies so heavily on ... So finally, despite Will’s lessons to his students from Camus, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Sartre, the saddest lesson of all, the most haunting, is always your failure to live up to other peoples expectations, not to mention your own. And the irony is apparent: How can a book succeed when its goal is to show the failures of existential books in teaching practical wisdom? Somehow, it does.
Paris itself threads throughout Maksik's novel, a character in its own right, sometimes supporting the action, sometimes contrasting it, and clearly a place that Maksik knows well. The author gives alternating first-person voice to Will, Marie, and Gilad, and chooses not to investigate Silver's motivation behind the affair, which can be frustrating. But the consequences resonate loud and clear. This is a thoughtful and sad story, ending with questions about the futures of everyone involved
Some of the best scenes in the novel involve the reconstruction of the philosophical give-and-take of his classroom, Will’s efforts to get his students to think and to make the literature their own. And despite the administration’s understandable desire to turn Will into a monster who’s preyed upon a vulnerable young woman, he remains sympathetic to the end. Both intelligent and intellectual, this is both a tribute to brilliant teachers and a cautionary tale of their imperfections.