Nothing by Janne Teller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Pierre Anthon, a 14 year-old-boy, stands in the middle of a class and announces, "Nothing matters." He walks out of the classroom to sit for most of the rest of Dutch author Janne Teller's YA novel nothing in a plum tree.
And so the existential journey begins for the twenty classmates who witnessed Pierre's proclamation and pass him every day on their way to school as he rains plums at them with the reminder that nothing matters.
Twenty classmates find themselves hell-bent on proving to him and to themselves that something matters--and they hatch a plan. If they can each contribute something that matters from each of their lives, and completely give it up for good, then they can show Pierre Anthon that he is wrong and something does indeed matter.
The twist in their plan is that someone else chooses for each of them. For instance, one child told the narrator that she must give up her favorite pair of casual footwear (green flip-flops). This one hurt as the flip-flops were her favorite, but she gave them up nevertheless. The point is, if someone else chooses, and you can't refuse, then we are bound to find things in others which are painful to lose and therefore...meaningful.
They continue to pile their personal belongs together, one by one, in an abandoned sawmill. As we move through the story, each item becomes increasingly cruel and personal...and painful...and, according to the philosophy of their journey--meaningful. The choices the adolescents come up for each other with are eye-opening: forced mutilation, animal cruelty, exhumation, desecration of religious items, loss of sexual innocence, and homicide.
I've read often that the writer's job is to be cruel to his/her characters...well, Teller certainly abides by that formula. It would also come as no surprise to find people offended by at least one of the actions by the characters in this novel. I'm reminded of a time when a perturbed colleague tried to engage me in a debate about a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph which offended him: the crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. Teller's novel can be perceived as just as evocative especially considering it is for the YA audience.
Personally, I found the novel fascinating and very difficult to put down as this existential journey hurtles with skilled recklessness towards the conclusion. The themes in nothing resonate with echoes from The Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, A Wrinkle in Time--all have been challenged by communities. The novel most likely will find some resistance in public school libraries and classrooms should it ever enter those domains, but I'll stand by my opinion that Janne Teller's nothing would make for some heady and healthy discussion with adolescents--just the opportunities for higher order thinking alone...yet, I can't put it in my classroom. Nevertheless, I am glad that I read it and am aware of it in case the opportunity to discuss it ever arises.
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