Paris, as a fictional setting, is now more than a popular novelistic trope: the city’s excessively mythicized status has rendered it an all-purpose ingredient, supplying whichever quality a story might require. An atmosphere of romance, whimsy, hipness or intellectual profundity is magically heightened by a Parisian backdrop, especially when, overtly or otherwise, the author summons the ghosts of Paris past. Two recent and deservedly well-received novels, You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik and This is Life by Dan Rhodes, make use of this geographical strategy in very different ways. Maksik’s novel, his first, is bleak and subversive, infused with the spirit of Camus. Rhodes’ novel, his fifth, is comedic and uplifting, playing literary homage to the film Amélie. But both stories are, at their heart, philosophical meditations on how we connect to other people, what it means to be young, and whether conventional morality is a reliable guide to life.
Rhodes’ heroine is a 19-year-old art student, Aurélie, who for a college project has decided to throw a stone in a crowded area, then spend a week shadowing the person it hits, filming, photographing and drawing them to produce a mixed-media ‘depiction of everyday life.’ Unexpectedly, the stone lands on a baby’s face, and its mother insists that, as a lesson, Aurélie should temporarily assume custody of the bruised but adorable child, Herbert. Meanwhile, one of Aurélie’s art school predecessors, an enfant terrible known as Le Machine, is preparing a Paris installment of his wildly successful show, ‘Life’, in which he spends three months living naked on stage, defecating into glass receptacles and saving all bodily excreta, down to earwax and eyelashes.
So initially, it seems as if we’re in for an amusing satire of the modern art world. But as the many quirky characters and interconnecting storylines that surround Aurélie and Le Machine are introduced, it becomes clear that Rhodes’ intentions are far less cynical and far more ambitious: he means to conjure a utopia where people and relationships are pure and lovely, and to do so without being irritating, or saccharin, or overly sentimental. Incredibly, he pulls it off, mainly thanks to the delightful originality of his approach and the humorous way he conveys simple generosity. Aurélie’s best friend Sylvie, who is so beautiful that her spurned exes never recover, works one day a week with Down’s syndrome children and wants to train as a special needs teacher, but ‘her primary misgiving was that such a decision would be a terrible blow to her exes, many of whom, as a survival mechanism, told themselves over and over again that she was a bitch.’ Le Machine’s gay doctor contemplates coming out to her father, who owns the ailing erotic cinema where ‘Life’ is taking place, but she hesitates, not because she thinks he’ll disapprove, but because ‘she knew how much he enjoyed girl on girl porn, and she didn’t want to do anything that might risk spoiling it for him.’
In the beautifully conceived alternate reality of This is Life, everything is similarly far-fetched. Characters who’ve never met fall madly in love after seeing photos of one another. Aurélie’s neighbours swallow her tall tale about little Herbert being an animatronic toy (‘He feels too rubbery to be a proper baby,’ points out Monsieur Simoneaux). And Sylvie has seven jobs, one for each day of the week, so as to maximize her chances of meeting Mr Right. The madcap surrealism, however, coheres into a skillfully plotted and genuinely moving story, and we don’t even need to suspend disbelief in order to be seduced by Rhodes’ offbeat intelligence. We know that Aurélie’s Paris only exists in her creator’s imagination, but it’s still a wonderful place to spend a few hours.
Alexander Maksik’s Paris, on the other hand, is brutally real—in more ways than one—and a lot less convivial. In the Paris of You Deserve Nothing, set in 2003, xenophobia, class struggle and violence are rampant, rich teenagers in designer clothes run wild and homeless men commit random murders. Hailed as a dazzling debut when it was published last autumn, this stark, gripping tale of a 33-year-old teacher’s secret affair with a 17-year-old student was quickly immersed in controversy when it emerged that Maksik, who used to teach at the American School of Paris, had based the novel on actual events. A student with whom he’d had an illicit relationship spoke of her ‘disgust’ over Maksik’s appropriation of her experiences, and former students of his came forward to condemn the author and the novel.
All of this, rightly or wrongly, muddies the waters of interpretation, while adding another dimension to the moral murkiness on which the novel pivots—and which teacher-protagonist Will’s students must confront as they debate Sartre and Camus under his inspiring tutelage. Maksik’s masterstroke is to tell the story from three not entirely corroborating perspectives—Will’s, his lover Marie’s, and that of a worshipful male student, Gilad—forestalling the reader’s knee-jerk judgment and eliciting sympathy for and even identification with all three narrators. The most vivid, wrenching and authentic voice, though, belongs to Marie. In her opening chapter, she talks about another girl, Ariel, and evokes the essence of teenage girlhood with dizzying succinctness: ‘She was my best friend. I hated her.’ Then, when Marie starts having sex with Will, she describes how ‘with my face all flushed, he’d tell me how beautiful I was. And I loved it. I did. Really. But I started to have the impression that I was making love to a ghost or a phantom or something. And more than once I felt that I could have been anyone. Anyone at all.’
The novel’s ethically questionable genesis aside, it is hard to read passages where Marie marvels at Will’s ‘elegant’ lovemaking, or indeed where the charismatic brilliance of his teaching is extolled, without feeling the vague but unwelcome presence of the author’s own ego. (‘You know,’ Gilad tells him, ‘I think maybe I’ve learned more in a month than I’ve ever learned anywhere.’) But it is a testament to Maksik’s remarkable talent, and to the almost flawless execution of this exceptionally powerful novel, that such considerations barely detract from the reader’s thrall.
One significant lesson Gilad learns is that Sartre was right: there is no divine justice and virtue is not automatically rewarded. ‘I guess I’ve stopped thinking that the world should make any sense,’ he says to Will. Appropriately, You Deserve Nothing remains existentially ambiguous on whether Will might come to regret his actions or agree that, as he is told, ‘It is a terrible thing you’ve done.’ Whereas This is Life, in keeping with its fairy-tale ethos, lavishly rewards goodness and punishes cruelty. Yet it does so in open acknowledgement of the chaos and sadness that’s always lurking, and which is dissected so unflinchingly by Maksik. The novel you choose to read first should depend only on your mood.