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Saturday, January 5, 2013

A horrible, horrible train wreck of a book

     In life there are many books worth caring about.  There are a few truely excellent books -- books that make you want to pound the table and tell someone you care about that you just read this amazing book that somehow grabbed hold of you and although you could summarize the plot for them, it wouldn't matter because really, they just have to read it.  Right now.  Many books are simply good -- they are worth reading, they are entertaining, and they make you think or feel something.  There are also many mediocre books -- books that never rise to the level of being commented upon.  They are badly written, uninteresting to children or adults, pointless, and at the end of reading them you feel nothing but astonishment that you have wasted time reading them (though if you are reasonably intelligent, you don't bother reading past page six. )
     And then, every now and then, there comes a book that is really truely horrible, flawed in some way that is, perhaps, hard to figure out.  Or maybe it is a book that contains a message that is, at its heart, simply and profoundly wrong.  Nothing, by Janne Teller (2000, Atheneum), is such a book. 
     I recognize that I am venturing into the thin ice of opinion and value judgements here.  That is okay.  I will make my case, and if you doubt me, go read the book.  It did, after all, win the Batchelder award for best children's novel translated from a language other than English (and usually, I enjoy the Batchelder winners quite a lot.) 

     It all begins in Denmark with a student (the book never specifies the grade level of the characters, but they seem to me to be in middle school) named Pierre Anthon.  Pierre has had a revelation that nothing matters, and therefore nothing is worth doing.  And so he stops coming to school.  Logically, perhaps, that is where the book should end.  But Pierre, it turns out, is rather evengelical about his new-found existentialist beliefs.  And so he mocks the other children from his perch high in a plum tree.  He says that they are stupid to care about life and about other people.  And perhaps that is where the book should end, with a bunch of annoyed children having to cross to the other side of the street to avoid the crazy existentialist in the plum tree. 
     Instead, however, the children are deeply and profoundly shaken by Pierre's beliefs.  At first they try to pelt Pierre with stones, but that doesn't seem to help.  Then they get this idea (and here is where logic and believability pack their bags and leave the book for good) that the best way to fight against Pierre's weird ideas is to go out to the abandoned sawmill on the edge of town and make a collection of things that matter -- then later they will show him this pile of stuff and he will abandon his strange ideas. 
     And then the novel starts to go all Lord-of-the-Flies on us.  The group of children decide that they will determine collectively what matters most to each person and then that person must then give up that thing.  It starts out simply enough -- one girl must give up her sandles, and a boy his yellow bike, but as the kids grow resentful about what they have been forced to abandon, they keep rasing the stakes on each other.  So soon they must steal things that matter from school and church, murder their pets, dig up one girl's deceased baby brother from the cemetary, one girl must give up her virginity, and finally, they all agree that the ringleader who got them into all this must give up his index finger, since he plays the guitar and that matters to him.  So they cut it off for him. 
     It is only at this point that adults seem to notice.  Parents get a bit angry (though not much, it must be said).  The story gets picked up by the news and goes international, and an art museum offers them a lot of money for their pile of things that matter.  I won't give away the ending (not that it matters much), but suffice it to say that the book seems to conclude that Pierre was right.  There isn't  much point to life.  And that is where the reader is left.
     If it is such a horrible book, why do I bother talking about it at all?  Well, actually, I think it is a fascinating example by contrast of what makes adolescent literature wonderful.  This book is implausible, and relies on the characters doing things that don't make much sense.  But a lot of characters are like that.  Does it make logical sense for Frodo to accept the responsibility for carrying the ring to Mordor when he is the smallest and weakest of the fellowship?  Does it make logical sense for Harry Potter to go into the dark basement of Hogwarts without telling an adult?  So what is the difference here?
     I think it is two things.  First, the world that a young adult novelist creates must be internally consistant.  Frodo carries the ring because that is the sort of person he is.  We see his courage and stoutheartedness earlier in the book, before he accepts the task.  When Harry and his friends get into dangerous territory, they either don't realize what they are getting into, or they have some other motivation that makes sense in the context of the story.
     The second thing is what is at stake.  Frodo must carry the ring because there is a great deal depending on it.  Same thing for Harry. Same thing for most good books.  They undertake difficult tasks and put their lives on the line because something matters a great deal. 
     I think the single greatest flaw of Nothing is that the only motivation for anyone in this book is a deep fear that Pierre may be right and nothing really matters in life.  That is, perhaps, a good reason to stay in bed all day.  Or maybe it is a good reason to act like a jerk to other people.  But it is not much of a reason to steal, give up objects that have sentimental value, risk being caught exhuming the body of a baby in the middle of the night or stealing the statue of Jesus on the cross from the front of the village church, or giving up your virginity, or letting your friends hack off your finger. 
     It doesn't leave the reader with much of a reason to read the book either.   

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