The

nothing
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

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Nothing

by Janne Teller; tr. from the Danish by Martin Aitken

Vampires have been tamed into love objects for preteens, and zombies are now just goofy alternative high-school classmates. What’s left to truly horrify? Well, as Danish author Janne Teller demonstrates in this gripping novel, there’s always humanity itself.

The trouble starts when Pierre Anthon stalks out of the classroom midsession announcing that nothing matters, so nothing is worth doing. He then ensconces himself in a plum tree, where his only detectable pastime is taunting (and chucking plums at) his former classmates. Those nettled classmates are determined to prove him wrong, and to this end they decide to collect stuff that matters to them, making a “heap of meaning” that they’re sure will convince him.

The plot sounds rather sweetly like an epistemological fable, but it’s actually chillingly matter-of-fact horror. Tormented by the secret suspicion that Pierre Anthon is right, the kids, thirteen and fourteen years old, are frantic to make him recant, and they quickly develop a notion of meaning that’s based on the pain of individual sacrifice. As each teen takes a turn prescribing what another in the group has to add to the heap, those sacrifices ramp up considerably; the bitterness of their own forfeitures inspires punitive choices, and the participants hone in on one another’s weaknesses with pitiless intensity under the guise of proving their point to Pierre Anthon. Each escalation of the demands is genuinely shocking: the initially startling insistence that narrator Agnes donate her beloved new sandals is quickly overshadowed by the requirement that one participant provide the exhumed corpse of her baby brother, another her virginity, still another the death of an ownerless local dog, yet another his index finger. Nor does the horror let up for a moment, not when the adults discover the bizarre, dreadful project, nor when the group finally presents it to the implacable Pierre Anthon (“Pierre Anthon had won. But then he made a mistake. He turned his back on us”).

Through Agnes, Teller keeps masterful control of tone and plot development. Her restrained voice tinges the proceedings with cool, savage comedy (“Anybody going anywhere near little Emil Jensen’s grave couldn’t help but notice that little Emil Jensen was no longer occupying it”), and she’s credibly, grimly shallow as she conveys the breathless anticipation with which the crowd waits for each new mandate of forfeiture and the group admiration of particularly impressive demands. The book deftly steers Agnes’ narrative style and pace, occasionally punctuating the expository chapters with a page sporting only a clipped, short-lined foreboding paragraph, like an epigram chipped out of ice (“She shouldn’t have done that”); she also inclines toward occasional rhythmic, triple-structured exclamations that sound a bit like jeers (“Couldn’t, didn’t, wouldn’t care less”), which add a creepy playground echo to her storytelling.

Jacket copy likens this to Lord of the Flies, and there’s certainly plenty of social realism to elicit discussion, with peer pressure, a determination to prove oneself right, and revenge all playing their malign roles. In addition, the philosophical challenge offered by Pierre Anthon is itself worth exploring, and Teller leaves sly hints as to why this particular town might have been especially invested in denial of his words (“The most important thing, in any circumstance, was to amount to something that really looked like it was something”), and why therefore adult attempts to gloss over the situation would only exacerbate it with their transparent falsehood. Yet there’s also the exquisite, mundane horror of Shirley Jackson, making this a must-read for those who find our own species the scariest of all, and whose favorite reading involves trying to peep at the pages while they cover their hands with their eyes.


Deborah Stevenson, Editor

 


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Cover image from Nothing ©2010. Reproduced by permission of Atheneum Books for Young Readers.


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This page was last updated on April 1, 2010.