Reading Alexander Maksik’s debut novel, You Deserve Nothing, is among the strangest experiences of my reading life in recent years. When I was nearly halfway through the book, events transpired that completely changed my reading of the book and got me thinking about larger issues of authorial responsibility and the author’s relationship to the text, as well as how readers might understand and react to that relationship. Big stuff—and all in a little book I’d scarcely heard anything about since I picked it up at the Book Expo back in May.
At the start, my reading was uneventful and tending toward positive. Maksik’s novel tells a single story from three points of view. Gilad, now 25 years old, tells of his first year at an international school in Paris. Will, Gilad’s favorite teacher, tells of his classes that year and of his eventual sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student named Marie, who in turn describes her relationship with Will. Initially, I was impressed with how well Maksik navigated the tricky emotional terrain and with his skill at giving each of the three narrators a distinct voice. Having different characters describe some of the same events showed just how unreliable one person’s perspective can be, even when that person is attempting to be honest, which we cannot assume these characters are.
One of Will’s early encounters with Marie is a good example. When Will describes it, we get an image of Marie as an oversexed, seductive nymphet that 30-something Will would need nerves of steel to resist. She’s giving him alluring looks, rubbing her behind right up against his crotch on the dance floor, pleading for his phone number. He knows his desires are wrong, but what can he do? From Marie’s perspective, we get a whole different story. She’s sexually inexperienced and self-conscious about her looks. She has something of a schoolgirl crush on this handsome young teacher. She turns her back on him on the dance floor because she’s frightened by his erection. He gives her his phone number—she never mentions asking. Are the discrepancies down to differences in perspective, or is one of the narrators spinning the events to make himself look good? That himself is intentional. My sympathies were with Marie from the start. Will’s account of her flirting seemed like clumsy justification for what he knows is bad behavior.
Even though I tended to trust Marie’s story more than Will’s, I didn’t see Will as a predatory monster, but I did see him as an immature jerk who refused to take responsibility for his actions. In truth, I was impressed that Maksik was not depicting him as a monster. How many men who take young women to their beds would act like obvious predators? Will is charming and sweet, and you can see how an insecure girl like Marie would be taken in by him, especially after her first proper boyfriend humiliated her. A grown-up like Will seems safe. I could also see how Will, immature as he is, would allow himself to go further than he intended with Marie. (That’s not an excuse, just a recognition that people lose control of themselves.)
Then, Jezebel broke this story alleging that Maksik himself was asked to leave his teaching position at an international school in Paris because he had a sexual relationship with a student. According to the story, several students who were at the school at the time, including the student Maksik had the relationship with, have reported that the events closely mirror what happened in real life. At this point, neither Maksik nor his publisher, Europa Books, has responded publicly to the charges, and all media reports that I’ve seen seem to rely on the Jezebel story.
I don’t want to get into whether this story is likely to be true. At this point, there’s just not that much information, and I’m no investigative reporter. What I am interested in is how this possibility affected my own reading. On reading the Jezebel article, my first reaction was revulsion, revulsion that someone would do this, and even more revulsion that he would then use that experience to further his literary career. Then I stepped back and remembered that as a general rule, I really don’t care whether the authors of the books I read are good people. It’s nice when they are, but I’ll read books by known assholes if the writing is good and the assholery doesn’t creep into the work in an over-the-top offensive way. Sometimes I’ll even read books that do offend me. This, however, seems different. This isn’t just a jackass author sharing offensive ideas. If the Jezebel story is true, this is a man who exploited a young woman once for his libido and is now exploiting his memory of her for his literary and financial gain. He is directly profiting from his wrongdoing.
Another question is whether it’s appropriate for authors to use real-life events to inspire their fiction. If the story is true, this feels different from an author basing a character on a friend or using isolated incidents from his or her own life to add flavor to a novel. But plenty of novels are known to be based pretty closely on true events. It’s common knowledge, for example, that the philandering husband in Nora Ephron’s Heartburn is Ephron’s own ex-husband Carl Bernstein. In mining real life, at what point does an author cross the line? And does it make a difference if the author acknowledges the autobiographical aspects of the work? I don’t know what I think about these questions, but in Maksik’s case, the element of exploitation cannot be avoided. (The steamiest sex scene in the novel felt downright foul once I learned it might be true.)
This information turned my general suspicion of Will into downright hostility. What looked like an author’s attempt to give a few sparks of humanity to someone society would write off as a predator started to look suspiciously like an author’s attempt to make excuses and to show that men like him aren’t so bad.
That was my gut reaction, but what fascinates me about this book is that I’m not sure the text itself is on Will’s side. There are a few moments when the text seems to turn against Will by having him say and do things that are so obviously sinister that I can’t imagine holding any sympathy for him. One of Will’s colleagues talks about how Will needs to find some peers his own age who care about him and a woman who will kick his ass once in a while. Even Gilad, the student who admires him most, becomes furious at Will’s refusal to acknowledge that he has some responsibilities as a role model for his students. Perhaps the most chilling moment occurs when Marie first comes to Will’s apartment. Will looks at her and thinks, “Although I knew she was playing at seduction, I created her for myself, made her what I wanted.” Ewwwww. Dis-gust-ing—and even more so when we consider that it could also apply to the author. Marie of the novel is his creation. Has he made her into what he wanted her to be?
The novel on the whole is ambiguous in its treatment of Will, and it would be oversimplifying to write this off as a predator’s justification of his own misdeeds. Will’s own version of events reads that way, but the addition of Marie’s and Gilad’s accounts muddy up the waters in a satisfying way. Marie, looking back five years later, is not yet over Will, but I didn’t get the impression that she’s longing for him—it’s more that she’s held captive by the memory, which in itself is upsetting and casts Will’s actions in an even worse light.
If I hadn’t read the story at Jezebel, I’d be praising this book for its complexity and ambiguity, as well as for the ways it explores the intersection of literature and life. (Some of these discussions seem a little too on the nose, but most of the time, it works.) It’s a good book, but the story behind it may very well be so bad that the book can’t help but be tainted.