Set in an international high school in Paris, You Deserve Nothing is told in three voices: that of Will, a charismatic young teacher who brings ideas alive in the classroom in a way that profoundly affects his students; Gilad, for whom Paris and Will's senior seminar are the first heady tastes of freedom; and Marie, the beautiful, vulnerable senior with whom, unbeknowst to Gilad, Will is having an illicit affair.
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.