Tag Archives: power dynamic in relationships

You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

“Fear. That is what separates the hero from the common man. It’s crossing the room. It’s not complicated.”

After concluding Alexander Maksik’s novel, You Deserve Nothing, I began to wonder just who the  ‘you’  refers to.  Could it refer to Will Silver, an American who’s ditched his wife for vague reasons and now teaches at a swanky Parisian school for over-privileged teens? Could it refer to Marie, a young girl who develops a huge crush on Will? Could it refer to Gilad–another adoring pupil of Silver’s? But then again, by the time the novel ends with an emptiness created by absence and a lack of explanations, perhaps  ‘you‘  refers to all those involved in this page-turner tale of teacher-pupil classroom power dynamics & transference.

The story unfolds through three perspectives, and the first three short chapters are narrated by Will, Gilad and Marie post trauma and scandal. The story then moves swiftly back to the past, and we see Will Silver, a young teacher separated from his wife, living in Paris and teaching under dream conditions. By dream conditions,  I should clarify that Will teaches a sum total of four classes; all of the students are bright, inquisitive, already wrapped in a sound education, and what’s more the class size is very small–perhaps, as it turns out, too small….

Will is a dedicated, dynamic and charismatic teacher who’s teaching for the third year at the International School (ISF) in Paris. His reputation in the school is such that students look forward to his classes; he has a way of posing vital questions to his students even as he challenges their cocooned beliefs. Parents–mainly diplomats, high-ranking military personnel and wealthy businessmen–invite Will to their homes and thank him for his genuine interest in their children. Most of the students, while wealthy and privileged, lack stability in their lives, and Will is the intellectual figure that all the students aspire to impress and imitate. While some of the students are extremely cultured and sophisticated, other students suffer from the other issues:

These kids like Mike Chandler who were fluent in several languages and cultures, who were so relaxed, so natural in exquisite apartments at elaborate parties, who moved from country to country, from adult to adolescent with a professional ease, were not the standard at ISF.

Most were kids who’d been plucked from an Air Force base in Virginia and deposited in Paris, who resented the move, refused to adapt. The move only strengthened their faith in conservative American politics. They refused France. Their rebellion was, by default, an adamant rejection of their new home and all things French. Their families bought food from the commissary at the American Embassy. Kid’s who’d return from weekend trips talked excitedly about the Taco Bell and Burger King they’d found at Ramstein.

You Deserve Nothing covers some very familiar ground, but Alexander Masik’s first novel rises above the crowd for its treatment of philosophical and moral issues. While this is manifested in the choices made in the multiple, sometimes conflicting narratives, the moral and philosophical issues also exist as an undercurrent to the drama that takes in the lively and realistic classroom scenes. Silver designs a senior seminar course which includes coverage of Sartre, Camus, Macbeth and Existentialism. He leads the discussions with the aim of sparking independent thought & intellectual curiosity, but Silver runs into some fairly common problems when it comes to the topic of religion, the issue of choice, & taking responsiblity for the decisions we make. The classroom dynamic, however, also begins to encompass Silver’s not-so-secret personal life, and Silver, who’s been put on a pedestal by most of his worshipful students, does not live up to their expectations or follow the creed he teaches. While classroom discussion is supposed to dissect and discuss hypothetical situations, Silver’s behaviour gradually comes under condemnation from all those around him.

It’s very easy to jump in on the band wagon and call for Silver to be run out-of-town, that’s not the only issue here.  Undercurrents of jealousy run between the students, and classroom politics impact what happens–everyone idolizes Silver, and it’s painful for worshippers to witness the fall of someone who’s been judged to be morally superior. In some ways, this is a coming-of-age novel, at least it is for Gilad who finds the entire distasteful episode devastating. To Gilad, who’s half in love with Silver, his hero is a positive male role model–perhaps the man he’d like to be, and certainly a man to be contrasted to his own brutal, half-drunk and abusive father. Gilad is essentially the confused outsider–someone who tries to make sense of it all, and although he’s not directly involved, he’s certainly impacted by the events that take place. Gilad, a sensitive and idealistic young man, can’t understand his parents’ troubled relationship, but as his mother explains, life isn’t always what you expected it to be:

People used to tell me when I was young that I didn’t know what I was capable of, that my intelligence was limitless, that I could do anything. Which I’ve come to realize is true in both directions. I never imagined that I was capable of this life. It would have seemed impossible to me when I was younger, but god do we surprise ourselves. They never tell you that what we surprise ourselves with may be disappointment.  

There’s an incident in the novel that I’m still mulling over. Without ruining the novel with spoilers, both Will and Gilad bizarrely walk way from a horrific event and don’t consider offering to be witnesses. The subject simply never comes up. I’m not sure if this is a failure on the part of the novel or if this is an intentional development which illustrates both Will and Gilad’s detachment from events. I think I’ll land on the latter.

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The Pets by Bragi Olafsson

“And at the same time I wonder why the hell one ever gets to know other people, or let them take advantage of oneself. One feels sorry for some poor fellow who happens to work in the same place, invites him to come abroad, and pays his keep, and the only thing one gets in return is ingratitude, rudeness, and the experience of being trampled on–quite literally.”

I’m not sure that I’ve ever read an Icelandic novel, and if that’s true then I started with a blast when I picked up The Pets from Bragi Olafsson. It’s a simple enough plot that revolves around the relationship between two men: Emil and Havard.

Emil is divorced and the father of a young son. He has a long-distance, vague relationship with Vigdis: “My girlfriend or lover (depending on how you look at it)” . When the book begins, Emil is returning to Reykjavik after a trip to London. He won the lottery and went on a spending spree, returning with cigarettes, whisky and bags full of CDs. Also, rather significantly, he did not get the items Vigdis requested. On the plane back home, he sits next to a middle-aged linguist named Armann Valur who bores him by constantly talking. On the up side of the plane trip, he runs into fellow passenger, Greta. He saw Greta years before at a party and she’s occupied his lustful fantasies since that time. Emil can’t believe his luck when he strikes up a conversation with Greta and she agrees to come to his apartment later that night.

Emil returns home looking forward to listening to his cds and drinking some of his duty-free whisky when he’s warned by a neighbour that a strange man wearing an anorak and carrying a plastic bag has been hanging around and asking for Emil. The strange man is Havard, a former co-worker and one-time co-housesitter–a walking disaster of a man Emil has every reason to avoid. Havard, who’s spent the last few years in some sort of institution is, at the very least, bizarre and eccentric, but he’s also possibly a great deal worse than that. With Havard knocking persistently at the door, Emil hides somewhat humiliatingly under the bed, but Havard, who’s anything but predictable, breaks in…. 

The novel runs on two storylines. One hilarious plot thread follows what happens as Havard takes over Emil’s apartment and starts inviting people in (and over), and the second tragi-comic story thread goes back in time detailing what happened years earlier between Emil and Havard when they housesat for some poor sod, a friend of Emil’s father, who owns a flat in Stoke Newington:

We had only known each other for about a month when we went off to London together. And it was by complete chance that Havard, whom I didn’t really know at all, accompanied me. I had just started working in a hardware store when a friend of my father, a former professional footballer and joint-owner of a soap factory in England, invited me to stay in the flat he owned in London for six weeks and take care of some animals that lived there: a cat, a rabbit, a guinea pig, and an ancient iguana. 

Since the housesitting disaster five years before, Emil hasn’t seen Havard–not since Emil paid Havard 400 pounds to get out of the house and go away:

Go away as far as possible, much further than just out of London, preferably to another country. And he said–with a grin fueled by two or three pints of Special Brew he had drunk before lunch–that if I could give him four hundred more then he would never show his face again.

I should have given it to him.

Olafsson tells us that relationships are dangerous. Once we let someone into our lives, all bets are off. This idea starts on the plane, and as the story plays out, we see that Emil has problems with setting boundaries in relationships. The first hint of that comes from Emil’s acquaintance with fellow passenger Armann. We’ve all been annoyed by fellow travelers at some point or another in our lives, but the problem runs deeper with Emil:

Really it’s no small risk one takes, boarding an airplane. For three hours (not to mention on longer trips) one is locked in a tight, uncomfortable space, way above any civilization, with unpredictable people, who could drink themselves senseless or spill their food and drink all over you–and the only place of salvation is the toilet.

On the plane, Emil is conned into buying alcohol without being quite sure how it happened, and in spite of the fact that Emil has ear plugs in while he’s listening to music, Armann, an “overdressed” perpetual lozenge consumer, refuses to take the hint, repeatedly engaging (or bothering) Emil until Emil gives up trying to listen to music:

Armann didn’t seem to have understood that I wanted to be left alone. I had shut my eyes and was trying to look as though I was concentrating on the music in the headphones, but it didn’t seem to make any impact on my neighbor; he nudged me again

Similarly, Emil isn’t quite sure where he stands with his girlfriend Vidgis, a woman who’s all ready to play Happy Families while that idea makes Emil a bit uncomfortable. Then there’s Havard. It’s purely a matter of personal opinion whether or not what Havard does is motivated by dominance, deviance or just from the fact that disaster follows in his wake. In both significant occasions between Emil and Havard (in Stoke Newington and back home in his flat), Emil could stop what was happening, but he’s driven by hope (that the bad situation either won’t occur or that it’ll end) and he’s also hampered by polite behaviour. The strongly drawn characterisations of Armann and Havard are in contrast to Emil–a man who wavers indecisively at crucial moments. But there’s one sentence that tells us a great deal about Emil:

It took less energy participating in something boring than trying to struggle against it, especially when there was no possibility of avoiding it.

This deceptively comic novel says a great deal about avoidance and tolerance of aberrant behaviours. The Pets is great literature for the way in which it forces us to examine our own lives as we recall the Havards we have known, the point at which we realised that these relationships were invasive and destructive and just how much we took before giving our own personal Havards the old-heave-ho. Emil relieves his past in a nasty no-exit-existentialist sort of way through the invasion of his own home (instead of someone else’s), the misuse of his property, and the resolution of his past thoughts about Greta.

The Pets is delightful, comic, and original, and its abrupt ending lingers leaving a bitterly hilarious taste behind. Finally a quote that shows there’s a great deal going on underneath the humour:

If time has some special role then I think it is two-fold: to take things away from one…and to give one something else instead…-something that doesn’t replace the loss, but helps one to forget now and again what one has lost.

Translated by Janice Balfour

Review copy from Open Letter Books

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Filed under Fiction, Olafsson Bragi