Nothing by Janne Teller (2010)

“It’s  all a waste of time,” he yelled one day. “Everything begins only to end. The moment you were born you begin to die. That’s how it is with everything” (p 8).

On the first day of seventh grade, Pierre Anthon stands up in class, declares nothing means anything, leaves and climbs a plum tree. From his perch,  he pelts passing students with plums and taunts them, belittles them. Irritated, the seventh grade class meets and decides them must get Pierre out of the plum tree.

So they throw rocks at him. They injure him. But a couple days later, he’s back in the tree, disheartening them with his words.

“Even if you learn something and think you’re good at it, there’ll always be someone who’s better” ( 27).

Enraged, the students meet again but decide to persuade Pierre things have meaning by creating a Heap of Meaning, a pile of items that have meaning to them, and then to show it to Pierre. In an abandoned saw mill, the heap begins with innocent enough items: a pair of sandals, magazines, etc.  But as the children go about deciding what another must contribute to the heap, things turn vindictive and the situation quickly escalates.

Agnes, sore at being forced to contribute her new sandals, demands Gerda’s hamster. Then it’s a student’s deceased baby brother, a girl’s innocence, the church’s statue of Jesus, and finally, a boy’s finger. Eventually, the police get involved. The kid’s contact the press. Eventually, the Heap of Meaning is sold to a museum. But Pierre refuses to see it. He laughs at their attempt to find meaning.

Then Sofie, the girl whose innocence was demanded at the alter of Meaning, loses it. Pierre shows up for that, ridicules them, and is attacked by all of them, beaten and killed. The kids burn the Heap rather than see it sold. The police blame Pierre. Case closed.

Now, how is Nothing like The Lord of the Flies? The students, when free of governance, act cruelly, just as most of the boys on Golding’s deserted island act. But what is Teller saying about our individual natures, about how we deal with existentialism, the overwhelming universe and our place in it? What is she saying about how we confront abnormalities?

What I found most disturbing about this book was not Pierre’s nothingness, nor even the more horrific contributions to the Heap of Meaning, but the absence of a single firm dissenting voice. While some students display shock at some requests (taking the Jesus statue is sacrilegious!) none of them refuses to participate. Not one goes to the authorities on behalf of their fellow student.

No one sees any other way of silencing Pierre, not through reason (clearly, Pierre is not living his philosophy) nor through apathy (meaning doesn’t come from without, why care at all about Pierre? Let him have his perspective). Instead of recognizing Pierre’s psychosis, the kids descend into depravity. Instead of discussing why Pierre’s nothingness is so upsetting, the kids just decide to correct him, through any means possible. They end up failing to convince themselves. If Anges (narrating six years later) is anything to judge by, all these people need to seek therapists.

(Their aggression is similar to the townsfolk’s in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. They may be scared or terrified at the prospect of the tide turning against themselves, but given the chance, they’ll throw a rock at another.)

Separately, as a reader, the whole scenario had me skeptical. That a child could sit in a tree for any length of time is rather unbelievable. His body has needs, and sitting in a tree for more than a few minutes is quite uncomfortable (yes, I’ve tried). That his parents or school officials would allow his absence from school/life is a stretch. That not a single adult witnesses his psychotic behavior… well, I found it all a stretch. But, ignoring all that…

Nothing is clearly meant to challenge its readers. It’s minimalist style was effective. A Printz honor seems a bit of a stretch… but oh well.

In the end, I felt incredibly sad for Anges, our narrator, and Sophie and the rest of this really stupid class of kids (there’s one in every school!). Also, a little angry at the parents in this novel, some of whom are abusive, negligent or otherwise completely disconnected from their child’s lives. Though Agnes is an unreliable narrator, the adults certainly seem partly to blame here. They definitely failed to come to the rescue.

Other reviews at: Book Envy, Opps… Wrong Cookie, The Ya Ya Yas, Ms. Yingling Reads, and A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy.

7 thoughts on “Nothing by Janne Teller (2010)

  1. Yes! Or take a different route to school. But Pierre’s comments had already hit home… So I began to wonder why they didn’t talk about why they were so upset. It was just immediate aggression.

  2. This — the uniform reaction of the entire class — is why I view this story as a bit of a fable/parable. Or say to myself, “oh, those Danish!.” Because if I begin applying what I think of as “how people would realistically react” it falls apart, for me. So instead I just moved beyond that — noted it as being more almost a dark tall tale, or Agnes’s twisted view (she was nasty & manipulative so therefore she remembers everyone else as being so) or, well, just a cultural difference I don’t get.

  3. A dark tall tale… I like that. I kept saying to myself, “Think of it as an exercise in psychology.” Because if I focused on all the things that didn’t add up for me, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the telling as much as I did. I really can’t wait to see reactions from teens at OCL. Sometimes, I really miss working in that department, as much as I love children’s.

  4. Yes, because I also think, what is it with the Danish police that a child’s finger was cut off and … nothing?

    Can you imagine the headlines at Asbury Park Press?!?

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