Nothing by Janne Teller, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-4169-8579-2
“Nothing matters.” When Pierre Anthon realizes this, he storms out of his seventh grade classroom, climbs the plum tree in his front yard, and begins sermonizing to his classmates passing his farmhouse on their way to school. “It’s all a waste of time,” he yells. “Everything begins only to end. The moment you were born you began to die. That’s how it is with everything.”
The other students in his class refuse to believe in his nihilistic philosophy and come up with a plan to prove him wrong. They will create “a pile of meaning” in which each of them sacrifices something that matters to them. The articles they give up begin with cherished mementos or articles of clothing. Soon, however, the children begin asking more and more of each other. A pet hamster, a prayer mat, a dead brother. As the kids become more desperate to find meaning, they sadistically force horrible, and in some cases gruesome, sacrifices, to prove Pierre Anthon wrong.
Nothing reads like a fable. A really, dark, bleak fable. The kind of fable a French existentialist might write and read to his small children at bedtime to teach them that God is dead and suffering is inevitable. I wouldn’t recommend doing that. Rather, read Nothing as an engaging companion to Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Pierre Anton repeats Meursault’s mantra in The Stranger that “nothing, nothing mattered” and the reader (at least this reader), like the children in this book, finds himself doing everything he can to reject this philosophy. As the children find more and more extreme ways of proving to themselves that things do matter, I found myself compiling my own list of things I would add to my “pile of meaning”. If I had to sacrifice music, for example, what would I do? Pierce my own eardrums? This is the kind of gruesome inventiveness that the children in the book turn to in order to combat Pierre Anton’s ruthless nihilism. Interesting note: The town’s Danish name is derived from a verb meaning to gradually consume, corrode, or eat through. You’ll understand the implications of this more after you read the book.
I found Nothing consistently inventive and thought provoking (This title makes recommending the book a little difficult to blurb – “Nothing is entertaining!”) Just when you think you figure out where the author is going, she adds a dark twist that feels surprising yet inevitable. Jann Teller was born in Denmark and Nothing feels like a book only a European could write (unless you’re Shirley Jackson and you’re writing the short story, The Lottery). American authors rarely take on such dark philosophical themes in their young adult fiction, unless they are creating a dystopian tale that is set in some fantastic future. And even then, they make it easy for the reader to reject the idea governing this futuristic society. Teller doesn’t make it easy at all. As much as I hated Pierre Anton’s philosophy, I also rejected the children’s response to it, which left me with more questions than answers, which for me is the perfect place to end a story.
Information about the author
From the author’s webpage, we learn that “Janne Teller(1964), Danish novelist of Austrian-German family background. Her literature that also includes essays and short stories, has received numerous literary grants and awards, and is today translated into 18 languages.
Since her 1999 debut novel, the highly acclaimed modern Nordic saga Odin’s Island about political and religious fanaticism, she has published several best-selling and award winning novels. Nothing, Teller’s existential and so far only novel for young adults, is the winner of the important Best Children’s Book Prize from the Danish Cultural Ministry, Le Prix Libbylit 2008 for best novel for children in the French-speaking world, as well as in the US the 2011 Michael L. Printz Honor Award and the Mildred Batchelder Honor Award.”
Young Adult Fiction
English, Civics, Philosophy
What would you place on the pile of meaning?
Can you derive Teller’s philosophy from reading the book?
Reading Level / Interest Age
Grade 9 and up