4 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Nothing by Janne Teller

Title: Nothing

Author: Janne Teller

Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult

Publisher: Atheneum
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.

Review:

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:

Nothing matters.
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.

We’d win!
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.

Notable Quotes/Parts:

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:

Ebook available for Kindle, Nook and Sony

32 Comments

  • Lenore
    August 23, 2011 at 12:27 am

    Kinda glad I read the spoilers, because I was curious about what happened in this book, but wasn’t sure I really wanted to read it.

  • Ana
    August 23, 2011 at 12:30 am

    Hey Lenore: so, did that help you decide to read it after all?

  • Jodie
    August 23, 2011 at 12:50 am

    Hmm that sounds Coehlo ish, a kind of moral parable writing where realism isn’t really part of the authors style. I don’t really know a lot about this kind of literary tradition, but I do know I struggle with Coehlo’s style, because I was growing my reading tastes in the midst of a world that was so focused on the post modern movements search for realist representation. I sort of wonder what the literary realists who are also nihilists make of this kind of writing which combines the hard look at the world with rather unrealistic set ups and if it makes them recognise how far their search for realism still has to go (stopping at nihilism and calling realism done is limited at best, deliberately deceptive at worst). And now this comment is all about me! Interesting food for thought here 🙂

  • The Book Memoirs (Elle)
    August 23, 2011 at 1:03 am

    I hate to sound flip and facetious but did none of these kids ever… just want to have fun? I find it quite an odd premise that a bunch of 12-or-13 year olds just suddenly decide that not only is Pierre Anton’s theory worrying enough to think about all the time but that it is of enough importance to derail their entire lives. In order to accept the premise of existential nihilism, you have to first be able to accept that you are insignificant – not only worthless as an underprivileged kid might realistically be able to accept – but actually genuinely insignificant, as in it does not mean anything if you live or die, it does not mean anything if you suffer. You have to overcome all instincts to survive to believe in this theory because your efforts to survive are meaningless, as they try to achieve an end, and all ends are meaningless because you are meaningless, yadda yadda. If Pierre Anton truly believed in existential nihilism, he would literally never have left the tree that he was in – his suffering would mean nothing and have no value, not even to himself. I’m assuming he wasn’t slowly starving to death and was thus leaving the tree.

    Furthermore, I have problems with the premise that some random group of 12-or-13 year olds who don’t seem to suffer any abuse beforehand and are in all sorts of different mental states would all, collectively (regardless of small town mentality), accept the premise that they are insignificant as the entire teenage psyche is geared towards being the only one in the whole world who matters. Being a teenager is necessarily biased towards a certain degree of testing boundaries but much more generally towards discovering yourself and what you like and what matters to you as an individual. The key word being MATTERS. At 12-or-13, I’m not seeing significant strides in discovering the true meaning of life, just that it’s probably not a good idea to tell your parents the truth if you want to get away with anything and possibly, in extreme circumstances, that drinking on an empty stomach is perhaps not a good idea. This, of course, does not preclude the scenario of bullying or of abuse at home at 12-or-13 where the basic instinct in all of us seems… to be that surviving is the primary purpose, which means we must care about ourselves enough to try. Sociopathy only exists under very select circumstances and it can’t be passed on like cooties; what’s worse is that psychopathic and sociopathic individuals (whether you believe in nature or nurture) are traits which stem from extremely egotistical individuals with generally fairly average or low IQs – compatible with the teenage psyche, absolutely, but not something, then, which is compatible with nihilism.

    I love John Green – I really do – but I tend not to take his book recommendations. John seems to like a type of fiction (and to write a type of fiction, though I love Looking for Alaska) which prides itself in its obtuse intellectual snobbery and heavy-handed life lessons, peppered with metaphors which reach the point of being the embodiment of the phrase reductio ad absurdum (sorry, Gatsby). A better literary exploration of existential nihilism is Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev.

    /end rant which occurred because Elle does not accept the concept of existential nihilism and people who do give her a headache. 😡

  • Ana
    August 23, 2011 at 1:18 am

    @ Jodie: when you say Coelho, do you mean the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho? If so, yay, I can reply to this comment with enough background as I basically read most of his books when I was younger still living in Brazil. I think you can’t really compare Coelho’s books to Nothing – they are completely different animals, I think. I don’t think there is anything even remotely realistic about Coelho’s fiction – unless you consider “magical realism” realistic. (god what a mouthfull.) I always approached his books with a more Fantasy/Magical feel than anything. You are right though they are moral parables – and in Brazil more often than not, his books are shelved in self-help.

    I wouldn’t qualify Nothing as a moral parable (which is where I think it differs from Coelho’s books).

  • Ana
    August 23, 2011 at 1:18 am

    @ Jodie: also, would you like to read the book? I can send it to you (right now, it is lined up for the charity shop).

  • Ana
    August 23, 2011 at 1:28 am

    @ Elle – wow. What a comment. I agree with you – not hugely fond of Nihilism at the best of times but it is especially difficult to accept it in the particular circumstances of this novel.

    “Sociopathy only exists under very select circumstances and it can’t be passed on like cooties; what’s worse is that psychopathic and sociopathic individuals (whether you believe in nature or nurture) are traits which stem from extremely egotistical individuals with generally fairly average or low IQs – compatible with the teenage psyche, absolutely, but not something, then, which is compatible with nihilism.”

    <<< This is so smart. I really just find it odd that it got so many starred reviews and not a single one of them questions the setup! It is as though it is enough for a book to be edgy!dark!philosophical! to make it good? ❓

  • Book Review: Nothing by Janne Teller | The Book Smugglers | ReviewTica
    August 23, 2011 at 1:32 am

    […] Read this article: Book Review: Nothing by Janne Teller | The Book Smugglers […]

  • Jodie
    August 23, 2011 at 2:14 am

    Yes I did I was hoping you’d have read his stuff, so I could get a sense of whether I was making an accurate linky thing (no then). Oh ok, so are you saying Nothing is striving to be more realistic, but inserting a morally parable into too realistic a setting and then messing up the realism wherever it is convenient for the story? I can see that causing a serious disconnect if that’s what you’re saying. Can you have realism and parable successfully in the same book any more, or do you have to pick one and commit do you think?

    I might horribly regret it, but…yes I would like to read it just to see how it goes. Do you still have my address?

  • Jodie
    August 23, 2011 at 2:17 am

    Also digression but OMG Eleven Minutes what even are you? I really, really want to read Veronika Decides to Die and thought I might manage it after The Devil and Miss Prym, but after that book…

  • Ana
    August 23, 2011 at 2:29 am

    @ Jodie: ugh, JODIE WHY DO YOU MAKE ME THINK SO HARD.

    I am not sure if Nothing strives to be more realistic – but I don’t think you can argue that its setting is realistic therefore for me, it is hard not to ask these questions?

    Can you have realism and parable successfully in the same book any more, or do you have to pick one and commit do you think?

    I think that magical realism is really really hard to pull off. But there is a difference between magical realism and then parable isn’t it? You can have a parable without crossing the line into magical/fantastic, can’t you?

    I don’t think I still have your address, can you please email? ta.

  • Ana
    August 23, 2011 at 2:32 am

    Also, the last book I read by Paulo Coelho was Eleven Minutes and that was then I decided I’ve had enough. I truly loved some of his books (The Fifth Mountain and By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept were faves but I read them such a loooooooong time ago OMG at 17! I am not sure I would still love them. I’d rather not find out, I think).

  • Juan Pazos
    August 23, 2011 at 3:58 am

    As per your summary, it really doesn’t sound like the book could get away with any pretense of realism. The very idea of a kid getting up and stating the futility of life made me think he was possessed or something of the sort, because it is just not believable. But then the rest of the kids’ reaction to that is even less realistic. Without having read the book I can only imagine enjoying it if you take it as an allegory, not even a parable, where I understand allegory to be a fictional means to convey an idea or a set of ideas. (Anybody correct me if I’m wrong!) 😕

  • Ana
    August 23, 2011 at 4:07 am

    Juan Pazos: I think you have a really good point. However, since we are given descriptions of the town and its location; since the kids attend school and go home; since the Moma (a very real museum in the real world) makes an appearance, I find it very hard to accept this as an allegory, you know? That is the point I was trying to make. If the story had been set at an undisclosed location, at an unspecified time, it would have been easier to accept it all as symbolic. The author gave it very real grounds and then took it away. I couldn’t accept this but many other readers could.

  • Juan Pazos
    August 23, 2011 at 4:15 am

    I absolutely get what you mean, and I am definitely not trying to defend the book in any way, since I haven’t read it. I was commenting on my impressions from your summary, that certainly made it look like the author had something very “clever” to tell but failed to convey it, to you at least, in a convincing way. In any case, judging, unfair as it may be, from the excerpts, the style is not very much my cup of tea, so I would probably give it a pass anyway.

  • Ana
    August 23, 2011 at 4:20 am

    Juan Pazos: I didn’t think you were trying to defend the book and I thought you made really good points, I am sorry if my comment came across as too dry. In any case, if you end up giving it a try, let us know how it goes!

  • Juan Pazos
    August 23, 2011 at 4:28 am

    I did NOT think your comment was dry at all… but I appreciate your concern, that´s very sweet of you. A couple more things, yet: this review reminded me of another author that won a prize. That would be Elfriede Jelinek and the Nobel Prize. I tried one of her books, Lust, I think it was, and could not stand it at all. It’s supposed to be a daring dissection or modern life with a nihilistic turn, but I simply found it obtuse, disgusting and hardly readable in any way. And it was quite allegorical as well… 🙄

  • April Books&Wine
    August 23, 2011 at 7:06 am

    Meh, I’d rather read Twilight and I did not love that book.

    Methinks Nothing would totally fly over my head and/or make me very depressed, being the opposite of a nihilist, you know self absorbed and all.

  • Katie
    August 23, 2011 at 7:45 am

    I’ll be a lone voice of dissent here: I liked this book. I actually thought it was somewhat realistic that kids would do such horrible things even though it was awful to read about. I taught middle school for a while and I’ve heard them talk of some pretty terrible things that they’re capable of without ANY thought to what the consequences might be. Yes, the extremes that they go to – especially cutting off someone’s finger – are a little far-fetched, but I was able to suspend my disbelief a bit for this book. This is probably wrong of me, but I was able to believe the story mostly because it was set in a different country, one that I’ve never been to. I have no knowledge of what the world is like for them there so it seemed almost otherworldly, like a dark fairy-tale, while I was reading it. I think teenagers are trying to find out what’s worthwhile in the world and what matters, though the search usually manifests itself in a very different way than in Nothing. I can’t say I enjoyed this book, because it’s uncomfortable, but I was struck by it. The short choppy writing didn’t bother me at all and I was surprised to see on Goodreads reviews how many people disliked it. On the other hand, though, I hate overly wordy books and just read one I felt SURE would have all kinds of negative reviews because of the distracting dialogue tags, but I found none. Every person reads books differently, which is why it’s so awesome that there are so many books out there, so that each person can be struck by the book that has the most meaning to them (and no, I didn’t intend to bring it back to meaning, lol).

  • Gillian
    August 23, 2011 at 7:55 am

    Thank you for the full review, complete with spoilers. I’ve been feeling a little bad for not buying this for my library, or at least reading it, but your review made me feel better. We’ve got limited space and money, and this would be unlikely to circ enough to make it worth purchasing, especially with the points you brought up.

    Oh Danes, and Scandinavian literature in general.

  • Mariah
    November 25, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    I think you have to look past its inaccuracies to completely enjoy its depth. It’s not meant to be life-like. It’s meant to be an eerie fairytale in the present. We don’t criticize Cinderella by saying that at least one girl in the entire town would have the same shoe size, nor do we say that we hate Snow White because a kiss would never wake someone up. It was strange, but it was beautiful.

  • Brenda
    January 4, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    mmmnnn…i was looking for an explanation for this book because i did not understand iit at all…but that brief summarize was helpfull…it was for my english 10 project…lol..

  • Deborah
    June 5, 2012 at 8:22 am

    Yes I agree. I didn’t get this book or the extreme. However I wonder if part of it comes from my childhood. Maybe this could be more plausible in a small European town instead of the US. I don’t know. I’m so glad I read it from the library instead of buying it.

  • hk
    June 29, 2012 at 7:30 am

    Yay, I’m not the only one who disliked it :D. And about the book being about the search for the meaning of life, I felt that it was more about how evil people could get. Apart from the occasional line referencing back to what they were supposed to be doing, I think on the whole the book got a little sidetracked I guess. More time was spent on describing the horrors of what happened than actually discussing the meaning of life. And you know, when you open a book and expect it to be about the meaning of life and get all sorts of macabre stuff instead, someone’s going to be disappointed.

  • Canada
    June 25, 2013 at 1:05 am

    I, like everyone else (I hope) can’t say that I enjoyed this book, but I did appreciate the different viewpoints it had to offer for me, being raised in a Christian household and being taught one theory on the meaning of life. Although there were MANY times I asked myself whether or not it was realistic, I found myself fully intrigued with the lengths to which these teens would go to prove that life did have meaning, it made me wonder how grounded I was in my beliefs, and how far I would go to prove them (ultimately to myself and not to others). I think that was the point, not necessarily to be realistic, or to disturb you with what these teens were doing, but to make you question what yo believe. Is there meaning to life? Yes or no? What would you do to prove that to yourself in times of doubt? Anyway that’s what I got out of it…

  • Anonymous
    February 13, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    I liked this book alot expecally the part when they cut Jon-Johans finger off I liked how they explained exactally what happened.

  • Anonymous
    February 13, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    I liked the part when they; cut Jon-Johans finger off because they explained the whole thing really well.

  • kk
    February 13, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    i loved the part when they cut jon-johans finger off it was so descriptive

  • Andrea
    June 2, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    Since many seem to be having a hard time understanding the decisions of the 12-13 year old characters in this story, let me be one to say that this story actually reminded me of my childhood. NOT in the same events or dramatic influences, but in the thoughts and actions done by the characters. I lived in an area where a group of neighborhood kids all came together and played games. We saw each other grow up, and knew our weaknesses. I feel like most characters in this book all put some thought into their actions, either as a dare or as a way to show you are capable of proving Pierre Anthon wrong. I remember the gang and I (the neighborhood kids) once did try to convince someone wrong. We all tried or best, and we all believed in it.

  • signe
    April 13, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    He was going to see right through us.
    Squat. Zilch. Nothing.

    well that part at least i can tell you is bed translating

    squat. zilch, nothing was ikke noget, ingenting, intet in the danish version the problem is that if you translate that directly to English that would be not a thing, nothing, nothing. you can translate intet to none to but that would probably not make much better but the thing is that intet more empty than ingenting and that ingenting is more empty than intet if you get what i mean.

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