Sunday, March 27, 2011
Nothing by Janne Teller
Sometimes reading a book can be like sticking a wet finger into an electrical outlet. Some books – not many, but some – have the power to zap you across the room. And not necessarily from great writing or characters, but from the sheer boldness of the story or the scope of the subject matter. The amazing novel Push by Sapphire is like that. Nothing is also an electrical outlet book; it shocks you and blows your synapses into overdrive. Is it a good book? Yes. It is a great book? Probably not. Is it worth reading? Absolutely.
Nothing is not for the faint at heart or perhaps for some who take their religion seriously. This book, like my previously reviewed book, the brilliant, Tales of the Madman Underground, will just about never set foot into a classroom. I’m sure it will at some point, and when that happens the censors will come crawling (and clawing) from every direction. The fact that a school or parents would try to ban it is even more reason to read it.
The place is Denmark and 7th grader Pierre Anthon (who is equivalent to an American 8th or 9th grader) stands up in his classroom on the first day of school and proclaims, “Nothing matters. I’ve known that for a long time. So nothing’s worth doing. I just realized that.” He walks out of school and climbs up a neighborhood plumb tree. That’s where he remains for just about the rest of the book, everyday, for weeks, even months. (I assume he comes down to go the bathroom, eat, and go home at night, but during the day, Anthon is up his plum tree.) His classmates come by and taunt him. He throws plumbs at them. They throw stones at him. Pierre Anthon has given them an existential headache. They want him down. They want to prove to him that life has meaning; that some things matter.
The story is not told by Pierre Anthon, but his classmate, Agnes. There is an old, abandoned sawmill in town. Agnes, along with the rest of their class, decide to create a “heap of meaning” inside the sawmill. This will prove to Pierre Anthon that life is not meaningless. Here is how it works: One at a time, each kid decides for another kid what they must give up and bring to the sawmill to add to the heap of meaning. This sounds like adolescent silliness – early on Agnes must give up her favorite pair of shoes -- but soon the stakes are raised, dramatically. The kids start to demand much greater sacrifices to the heap of meaning, and the rest of kids go along with it. It does not take long for the kids’ demands to be fueled more by revenge than the search for meaning. I can’t give away much more of the story, but suffice it to say that some of the children – and one girl in particular – must give up nearly the ultimate to the heap of meaning. Does this get disturbing? Yes. Deeply shocking? Yes. Is that point? Yes.
There are parts of the story that seem unrealistic, or perhaps odd is a better way to describe it, such as the invisibility of the kids’ parents. In some ways, Nothing is an absurd story (especially the last third of the book), but that absurdity is rich with meaning and metaphor. And at times, especially early in the book, the translation from Danish to English doesn’t always seem to gel.
Thematically – and even to some degree the story itself – Nothing is a new Lord of the Flies. (One of my favorite books.) Nothing has won a slew of awards, both in Denmark and the U.S., including a Michael Printz Honor Book and a Batchelder Honor Book. Once finished, this is a book most will spend some time with in their head. I just read it (a very quick read), and perhaps I should have held off on writing my review and given myself some time to think. But that, after all, is a very good thing for a book to do.