Nothing by Janne Teller
Genre: Young adult, existentialism, philosophy
Rating: 5 out of 5 (not that it matters)
Summary: The first day of school for the newly minted seventh graders of Tæring should be the start to a perfectly boring year. But minutes into that day, Pierre Anthon stands up and announces “Nothing matters. I’ve known that for a long time. So nothing’s worth doing. I just realized that.” With that, he leaves the classroom and goes to sit in the plum tree outside his house. He taunts the other children from his perch, and though they initially pretend he doesn’t affect them, they soon decide something must be done.
They want to show Pierre that there is meaning in their lives, and so the kids start collecting items that matter. They keep it all in an abandoned sawmill outside of town, creating a heap of meaning. It soon turns into each child demanding an item they know another cherishes. While it begins with beloved books or favorite shoes, it quickly takes a dark turn. As the heap grows higher, the class of 7A must decide if their meaning will ever come at too high a cost.
The inside flap of this book states it’s a “Lord of the Flies for the 21st century.” I was immediately turned off. A more boring book than Lord of the Flies is hard to come by. Look at those stupid boys run around an island, and look! CHRISTIAN ALLEGORY BEATING ME OVER THE HEAD. That comparison, along with the rather emo-looking cover, had me convinced Nothing going to be boring and angsty. So I half-heartedly started reading, and I am so freaking glad I did.
This book is haunting. From the first page onward, it just blew me away. The story itself is so simple, yet compelling. Tæring is a town that could be in any developed nation in the world, and the kids could be any 7th graders. Unlike Lord of the Flies, this book does not take place in a vacuum. The kids search for meaning in the world around them, a world that their parents built and that they’ve always known. Pierre Anthon makes them look at their environment for the first time, and they revolt at what they find there. They don’t want to accept the boring buildings and streets as meaningless, because that would mean Pierre was right. We exist with purpose; things matter. It’s this urgent quest for meaning that makes the events so plausible.
It was a great move on Teller’s part to have characters in middle school. That’s the age at which most people will begin to bow to peer pressure over familial pressure. The kids of Nothing are really well crafted, and the way things escalate seems so natural. Teller brings all sorts of motives and emotions into the demands, and we gain insight to the characters without having much backstory. I loved how they judged the inventiveness of the demand, and that the kids started taking longer to think of a really meaningful (read: hurtful for the other person to give up) item that was to be sacrificed to the heap of meaning.
The narrator, Agnes, is another great part of this book. Her voice is never over-assertive. In fact, there were times when I forgot there was a separation. She often speaks of herself as part of the class, and how the class reacts. But you start to realize Agnes is a bit of an instigator. Her demand of Gerta starts the more sinister trend, and the other kids look to her for leadership and gutsy ideas. Pierre also seems to realize that his words affect her more than the others, often singling her out from the plum tree.
The most astonishing part of the novel is the language, and the way Teller delivers very blunt messages in an easily absorbed way. By having the kids try to find things that mean something, and having Pierre as a character who can scoff at everything, she builds this exploration around what the hell anything means. Sorry, I know it’s redundant. But the sentences are so succinct, and nothing is ever excessive. From the material to the abstract, she manages to comment on the way we ascribe importance to things. And the way our perception of things alters meaning – “the school was so gray and ugly and angular that I almost couldn’t catch my breath, and all of a sudden it was as if the school were life itself, and it wasn’t how life was supposed to look but did anyway.” The lyrical nature of the words paired with the really desolate outlook is so striking, but without being mopey or absurd. It’s terribly honest but beautiful all at once.
Even lanuange itself is not safe from her. Teller often grafts these three little variations of a word or an idea onto the end of a paragraph. Like, “Scared, more scared, most scared.” “Good, better, best.” “Victory is sweet. Victory is. Victory.” To me, she was breaking down the meaning of the very words she used to tell a story about meaning. She so deftly points out how everything is fabricated, even the way we communicate. Then she ties it back to the gaping holes in the logic of our day-to-day existence. It’s this tightly constructed package of questions and more questions, but it’s up to you to decide if there’s any meaning after all.
- Delves into the search for meaning in our lives, but in an extremely palatable way
- The characters are well written, with interactions and motives
- Writing is aching and wonderful
- So I think she may have stolen the idea for Pierre sitting in his plum tree from Hey! Arnold. Stoop kid, anyone?
Nothing is an excellent novel, and I strongly recommend it for both teens and adults. It is disturbing and haunting, and it is makes you closely examine the axioms we hold onto so dearly (and desperately). From innocence to faith, from love to revenge, the kids of 7A are mirrors for ourselves and our own struggles with meaning. This novel will stay with you, and don’t be surprised if you hear Pierre’s voice ringing in your head for weeks to come.