Center for Children's Books
|The Big Picture, a
regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth
look at selected new titles and trends. See the
archive for selections from previous months.
by Janne Teller; tr. from the Danish by
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
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
Cover image from Nothing
©2010. Reproduced by permission of Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
the Bulletin Archives]
This page was last updated on April 1, 2010.