Author: Janne Teller
Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult
Publication date: February 9, 2010
Hardcover: 24o pages
Pierre Anthon left school the day he found out that it was not worth doing anything as nothing mattered anyhow. The rest of us stayed behind. And even though the teachers carefully cleared up after Pierre Anthon in the class room as well as in our heads, a bit of Pierre Anthon remained within us. Perhaps this is why things later happened the way they did …
Thus begins the story of Pierre Anthon, a thirteen year old boy, who leaves school to sit in a plum tree and train for becoming part of nothing. “Everything begins just in order to end. The moment you were born you began to die, and that goes for everything else as well.” Pierre Anthon shouts and continues: “The whole thing is just one immense play which is about pretending and about being best at exactly that.”
Scared at the prospects that Pierre Anthon throws at them together with the ripening plums, his seventh grade class mates set out on a desperate quest for the meaning of life. This involves a closed saw mill, green sandals, a yellow bicycle, a pair of boxing gloves, the Danish flag, the hamster Oscarlittle, a Jesus statue stolen from the church, little Ingrid’s crutches, six blue ponytails, a prayer rug, the coffin with Elise’s little brother, the head of the dog Cindarella, fame and a meaning found and lost and …
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: Nothing is an ALA Printz Honor book but what prompted me to read it was seeing John Green’s tweets a few months ago, raving about how good it was.
Warning! This review contains spoilers! Do not read if you don’t want to know what happens! You have been warned!
Nothing is an award-winning book (including an ALA Printz Honor) and has received tons of very positive reviews but it wasn’t until John Green raved about it on Twitter a few months ago that I decided to buy it. A few weeks ago in the middle of a reading slump, I looked at the book, it looked back at me, and I thought surely this is a safe bet, all things considered. Well, that only goes to show how much reading is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you going to get. I didn’t like this book at all.
The story is set in a small town in Denmark and it starts this one day when 13-year-old Pierre Anthon stands up in the middle of the classroom and says:
I have known that for a long time.
So nothing is worth doing.
I just realised that.
He then leaves school to sit in a plum tree from where he taunts the other students day after day with things like:
Everything begins just in order to end. The moment you were born you began to die, and that goes for everything else as well.
The students grow uneasy about what Pierre is telling them. What if Pierre is right and nothing has meaning? So his classmates decide to show him that things do mean something and set out to build a pile of meaning to show him. They start working at this closed mill, where they start building said pile by adding things that matter to them, willingly giving them up. They start with simple things, like someone’s favourite shoes or someone’s new bike. But then they realise that these are not meaningful enough.
They also realise that one does not have the strength to give up more meaningful things so they decide to choose on behalf of each other and they start to demand more in a horrifying crescendo: they dig out the body of a dead brother and add the coffin with its contents to the pile and they add this kids’ beloved pet. The stakes are amplified with every subsequent pick: a devout Muslim’s praying rug, a Christ in the cross, one girl’s innocence (she is raped by some of the boys, who put a rag with her blood and their semen in the pile), a guitarist’s finger.
This goes on for months and months until eventually one of the kids breaks down and tells the adults. The media creates a circus around it, although the kids suffer no real consequences after all they’ve done. A museum declares the pile to be Art, and therefore the pile does have meaning. The kids agree to sell it for millions of dollars. And just then Pierre finally gets around seeing the pile they built for him and promptly declares it meaningless – because they sold it so easily. The kids get really fed up at this point, and they beat Pierre to death, set the barn and his body on fire to make it seem an accident and they go on their merry lives. The end.
I will just start by saying that I have no problem with the fact that the book is bleak, violent and works as an expression of extreme nihilism. That’s not the reason I disliked it. I also have no problem with the philosophical questioning: the question of whether life has meaning or not is an important question to be asked even though I am not personally fond of existential nihilism.
No, the reason why I disliked the book is simple: I don’t think it is a good novel. I think it is flawed in terms of executing its basic premise, the development of the story is contrived and manipulative and the writing is irritating to say the least.
The reader is supposed to accept that a bunch of 7th graders gets around their really small town over a long period of time (months and months) doing these things completely unnoticed and unchecked by their parents, neighbours and teachers because one kid is up in a tree yelling things at them? I am supposed to suspend disbelief and accept the premise that this kid just sits up on this tree day after day after day and no one does anything – where are his parents? Am I supposed to accept that every single student is equally distressed by what Pierre tells them and that not a single one of them offers a dissenting voice?
I am supposed to accept all of that as part of the philosophical aspects of the novel. But I can’t: this is NOT a philosophical essay; it is supposed to be a work of fiction, set in our time and in a really small town. This is not speculative fiction, and there’s nothing that is even remotely fantastic about this story which could help with suspension of disbelief: it is not a fairytale; it is not set in the future or in a dystopian society. I am sure that the point is to show how group mentality works and how searching for the meaning of life could happen anywhere, anytime but come on, these kids are not isolated (and therefore the comparisons with Lord of the Flies are not exactly apropos), life goes on, they go to school every day, they go home every day. I don’t buy how this could have happened. So therefore, in terms of a fictional story it does not stand against close scrutiny.
Furthermore: some things really bothered me. There are no consequences for the crimes (yes, they are crimes) committed by the kids. Apparently only one of them has to face his parents and it is the Muslim kid – who is severely beaten up. After all of that happens, only one of them completely loses it and goes insane in a very sociopathic way: the girl who was raped and lost her virginity. Because apparently you can get over everything in this life and you don’t really lose your innocence if you do despicable things, you only lose it if you lose your virginity. I am not saying that she shouldn’t have severe emotional problems after the terrible thing that has been done to her, but I do find it problematic that she is the only one. But who knows, maybe I am missing some philosophical point here?
But because of all that, I felt the development of the story and the amplification of the tension to be extremely contrived, and felt as though the events were being manipulated to fit the philosophical premise. It never felt like a natural crescendo.
Finally, there is the writing. Its minimalist writing, full of short, staccato sentences was extremely grating and they happen every 2-3 pages. I understand this is a translation from Danish – maybe this sort of writing sounds better in the original language? Examples:
All of a sudden I was scared. Scared of Pierre Anthon.
Scared, more scared, most scared.
Victory is sweet.Victory is. Victory
We didn’t reply. Not one of us. Five-zero-two
He was going to see right through us.
Squat. Zilch. Nothing.
Then I noticed how quiet it was in the mill.
Quiet. Quieter. All quiet.
So yeah, Nothing did not rock my boat and I know I am the minority when it comes to this one (on top of awards, it also got starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly). But, hey what the hell do I know? I quoted Forrest Gump in my intro to this review.
We were supposed to amount to something. Something was the same as someone, and even if nobody ever said so out loud, it was hardly left unspoken, either. It was just in the air, or in the time, or in fence surrounding the school, or in our pillows, or in the soft toys that after having served us so loyally had now been unjustly discarded and left to gather dust in attics or basements. I hadn’t known.
Rating: 4 – Bad
Buy the Book: