How It All Goes Down
Nothing opens with Danish 7th grader Pierre Anthon's words to his classmates on the first day of school: "Nothing matters. I have known that for a long time. So nothing is worth doing. I just realized that." Which is to say: don't be hoping for a happy ending, because you're not going to get one in this book. We feel pretty safe in saying that Nothing is one of the bleakest books you'll ever read, but contrary to what our hero might tell you, it's still totally worth it.
Upon making his declaration, Pierre Anthon stands up and walks out of school, leaving his classmates staring at the open door. (What, you thought it was worth shutting? Fools.) He goes back to the commune at Taeringvej number 25, where he lives with his dad and a bunch of other hippies, and he climbs a plum tree and takes up residence there. The fact that no adults intervene in any way is your first clue that Nothing is an allegory, so go ahead and suspend your disbelief right now, because you're never going to find out how his family or teachers react (or, for that matter, how he eats, changes clothes, or goes to the bathroom.) This is all about the chaos Pierre Anthon's declaration generates among his peers. Not, you know, his misdemeanor citation for squatting.
As our narrator Agnes tells us, she and the rest of class 7A decide that the way to get Pierre Anthon down from his plummy new home is to build a "heap of meaning"—a pile of things that mean something to each of them. Dennis starts the pile with his Dungeons and Dragons books, then challenges Sebastian to give up his fishing rod. Sebastian obeys, then calls for Laura's African parrot earrings. So far so good, right?
Oh, but just you wait, Shmoopers. We've got 7th graders daring each other to do stuff here. It's about to get dark.
The game goes like this: you give up a thing, then you get to choose the next person and the thing they have to give up. Of course it can't be just any old thing that matters a little bit; it has to be the thing that matters most, and the other kids get to chime in and help decide what each should sacrifice. So when Agnes's turn comes and her annoying classmate Gerda points out how much Agnes loves her new green wedge sandals, Agnes goes for the jugular: she demands Gerda's beloved hamster. Because it's fall and they're building the pile in an abandoned (read: unheated) sawmill, you can probably guess that the hamster's fate is sealed.
From there we get into grave-robbing, loss of virginity, and animal sacrifice, and it's not long before someone loses a finger. But when the newly nine-fingered Jon-Johan finally tells his parents what's been going down at the sawmill, the cops, the media, and, ultimately, the Museum of Modern Art get involved. Suddenly the heap of meaning is worth 3.6 million bucks to the New York art world. When the kids accept the museum's offer, Pierre Anthon, still firmly ensconced in the plum tree, crows with vindication: if any of that stuff really meant anything, they wouldn't have sold it, right?
Well, that's when Sofie, the girl who gave up her virginity, goes nuts. She starts running around the sawmill screaming and ramming her head into walls, and it's not long before the rest of the class goes loses it (their sanity, that is, not their virginity) and starts beating each other up.
Agnes tears herself away from the brawl and begs Pierre Anthon to get out of the tree, come see the heap once and for all, and put a stop to the madness. He agrees, but when he gets there, he tells his mangled, bloody classmates what idiots they're being, then makes the fatal mistake of turning his back on them.
Nothing ends with Class 7A torching the sawmill with Pierre Anthon's body inside, then returning after the blaze with containers in which they each save some souvenir ashes. Years later, whenever Agnes looks at hers, she realizes that you don't play around with meaning.
Welcome to existentialist philosophy, folks. Viva Kierkegaard?