You can accuse Janne Teller of a lot of things, but being warm and fuzzy isn't one of them. The characters in Nothing are so cold that if you licked one of them, your tongue would get stuck.
An example? Check this out. When the gang is pressing Huge Hans to give up his bike, Agnes says, "Sofie was one of those who pressured the most." (12.16) The only line on the next page is, "She shouldn't have done that" (12.17). If that doesn't send icy chills of foreboding up your spine, nothing will.
Why so cold? Well we've gotta say, these characters are ice queens and kings if we've ever seen some. We've got Pierre going around proclaiming that the world has no meaning, and a bunch of other budding sociopaths demanding severed body parts like it's a game of truth or dare. These people aren't exactly bursting with empathy. Their moral compasses are faulty at best. And because they're slowly arriving at a belief that meaning is, in fact, nothing at all, well their insides are of course cold to everything around them.
It's narrated by a teenager, it's about teenagers, and it was written for teenagers. It also won the Printz Medal for Young Adult Literature and was hailed by YA-author-slash-demigod John Green as one of his favorite YA books. Yep, we'd say that seals the deal.
An alternate title for Nothing might be Existential Nihilism for Beginners. It's brought straight to you from Denmark, the land that gave us the great Existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Questioning the meaning of things is a Danish tradition – and, as Pierre Anthon shows us, it's never too early to start.
Nothing is pretty straightforward as far as titles go: it's the first word of the book, and we learn what it means on the first page. It comes from Pierre Anthon's declaration that nothing matters, which the rest of the class will spend the rest of the book attempting to negate. It's also part of the central tenet of existentialist philosophy: nothing can be understood except through the lens of individual experience, therefore all meaning is subjective. In other words, what means a lot to you might mean nothing to someone else.
The great existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a famous book called Being and Nothingness, in which he said that all human beings start as nothing and become only what they make of themselves. Pierre Anthon, of course, has decided exactly what he will make of himself: nothing, because there's no point.
Because, you see, Pierre Anthon has gone beyond existentialism (things do have meaning, but the meaning is based solely on individual perception) to existential nihilism (the individual is insignificant, therefore his perception is meaningless, therefore nothing matters.)
At the end of Nothing, it's been eight years since Pierre Anthon's death in the sawmill fire. Class 7A has scattered to other, larger schools, as Danish kids do in 8th grade. Sofie was sent to a mental institution, and as far as we know, she's still there.
Agnes tells us that she sometimes takes out the matchbox full of ashes from the sawmill fire and thinks about meaning. She tells us how she and her classmates cried at Pierre Anthon's funeral, because they had both lost something and gained something. What they lost is apparent; it's all in the heap of meaning. But what they gained is harder to say. In fact, she never does say, exactly. But she's sure now that there is meaning in the world, and that meaning isn't something to fool around with.
Then, like the 7th grader she was back then, she says, "Is it, Pierre Anthon? Is it?" It's like there's a part of her that never grew up—a part still stuck in the "I know you are, but what am I?" mentality of a 12-year-old kid. Which leads us to wonder how much of an adult she actually is, even eight years later, and how much of her being an adult is, as Pierre Anthon predicted, just pretending.
A note at the end of the book tells us, "Taering is a fictional place. Its name is derived from a verb meaning to gradually consume, corrode, or eat through, for example the way rust may eat through metal." The translator, Martin Aiken, tells us that there is no direct translation of "Taering" into English, but he chose to keep the name to give the reader the "sense of being somewhere foreign." Basically, it's a small town in Denmark, with small town mentalities. That means it's the scene of the consumption and corrosion of its characters' ethics.
From the very beginning, Agnes is afraid of being totally consumed by Pierre Anthon's beliefs. When he walks out the door on the first day of school, she says, "Pierre Anthon left the door ajar like a grinning abyss that would swallow me up into the outside with him if only I let myself go." (2.12)
Then there's the corrosion of the meaning of the heap of meaning, which begins once the town becomes more connected to the outside world. In other words, once the museum offers money and the media goes away, Class 7A begins to question whether anything on the pile ever really had meaning at all. As Agnes tells us: "It was the day before the museum people were coming to pack up the heap of meaning, and the meaning—or what was left of it—was forever on its way out of Taering" (23.1).
As with a lot of other elements in this novel, the setting seems more symbolic than anything, so we don't get a lot of details or descriptions. The fact that Taering's a small town, relatively detached from the rest of the world, means that these folks all know each other really well. That also means they know how to hurt each other—they know what matters most to each and everyone else.
Nothing is a quick read, and it probably won't send you running for the dictionary. Although some of the Danish words may be unfamiliar, the English translation does an excellent job of explaining them through context.
This is an homage to the famous Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard; although his name is never mentioned, the book is heavy with his central tenet of "authenticity," or the idea that understanding human existence requires being true to one's authentic self. Think of Nothing as an allegory, a tale in which the characters and actions represent Kierkegaard's concepts.
If you set aside your desire for realism, and prepare yourself for plenty of violence (the cruelty in this book is probably the biggest obstacle to getting through it), you should be good to go. And the best part is, you'll learn a lot about yourself along the way.
Nothing is the book version of one of those modern, architecture-magazine homes that's all hard white edges and stainless steel. By the end, you're just looking for a couch and an afghan, and maybe a cat and a cup of hot chocolate for good measure.
Janne Teller doesn't waste words. She's not trying to make you feel cozy. Instead, Teller uses only as many words as she needs to convey the relevant information. She's, in a word, terse. There's a lot of why-use-a-sentence-when-a-fragment-will-do writing, which is true to the age and emotional maturity level of our narrator: a 7th grader isn't going to talk like Faulkner, or it wouldn't be realistic.
And in telling us only as much as we need to know, Teller leaves a lot to our imaginations. We fill in the blanks of the gruesomeness, and it becomes even scarier that way. It's the same idea as the horror movie that doesn't show you the monster until the very end: instead, the director focuses on building suspense, knowing that there's nothing she could show you that's as scary as what you could imagine.
Sofie's rape, for example, is a very short chapter. There's a ton of buildup, like when Agnes says, "It was a dreadful day at school" (13.8). Once again, that's the only sentence on the whole page, but she follows that with a description of the day and their interaction with Pierre Anthon that afternoon.
The actual rape, however, is never shown. We don't go with Sofie to the sawmill that night. All we get is Agnes's take on it the next day: "there was just a smidgen of blood and some slime on a checked handkerchief lying at the top of the heap of meaning, and Sofie was walking a bit funny, like it hurt when she moved her legs." The reader is left to imagine the gruesome details, and people can imagine some pretty gruesome stuff.
Okay, let's talk Kierkegaard. In order to understand Nothing, you need to understand that the first existentialist philosopher—that would be Kierkegaard—was from Denmark, so they take existentialism pretty seriously over there. Before you go throwing your hands up in the air and saying, "I didn't sign up for Philosophy 101," here's all you need to know: the basic tenet of existentialism is that it is entirely the responsibility of the individual to give life meaning.
"But wait!" you may be saying. "If Kierkegaard thought each individual created meaning for himself, why didn't Pierre Anthon choose to create his own meaning? Wouldn't that make his classmates right and Pierre Anthon wrong?"
Well, not exactly. Because, you see, Pierre Anthon's branch of existentialism is called existential nihilism, as written about by Jean-Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche. Basically, it's like you've gone on the fast track from becoming authentic and real to becoming jaded. You've discovered yourself, looked around you, and found that everything is pointless. And if you're Pierre Anthon, you've done it by the time you're 12.
So if we look at Nothing as an allegory for existential nihilism, Pierre Anthon represents the authentic individual, and Class 7A represents the masses of inauthentic individuals who are ruled by the fear of not fitting in. Existential nihilists believe that fear is responsible for faith in religion and the supernatural, and—as far as Pierre Anthon's concerned—in any belief that anything matters at all.
The individual objects the students give up are little mini-allegories in themselves. If we go with the idea that fear drives belief in meaning ("ha! what nonsense!" says Pierre), it stands to reason that those who are willing to give up the most (or demand the most of others) are the most fearful. Two of the students who express a lot of fear when making their sacrifice to the heap of meaning are Hussain and Holy Karl. Not only do they fear what their gods will do to them, they fear what their parents will do to them, too.
As Agnes tells us after Hussain gives up his prayer mat, "He was not a good Muslim, his father had told him, and then he had beaten the life out of him. That wasn't the worst. The worst was that he wasn't a good Muslim. A bad Muslim! No Muslim! No one!" (12.3-6). Failing at your religion means not only losing your protection from fear but losing your identity as well. It's the same deal when Holy Karl has to give up Jesus on the Cross and he hides behind the altar, where Agnes tells us he "covered his ears and… howled."
The animal sacrifice that results from Holy Karl's attempt to avenge Jesus (when he makes Pretty Rosa cut off Cinderella's head) could be seen as an allegory for religion-driven war. The desire to get revenge on someone, even a dog, who defiled his god is just one step closer to everyone beating each other to a bloody pulp over, well, meaning itself.
And then there's the fact that Sofie's rape is one of the most shocking moments in the book. It's the point when you realize things have gone completely off the rails. What follows is a big bunch of Biblical vengeance—some real eye-for-an-eye action. Are you noticing yet that every time anyone thinks they know where the real meaning is—whether it's in sacrifice, religion, material objects, whatever—violence ensues?
To sum up this whole allegory and the individual allegories of the sacrifices in one sentence (stand back, we're gonna try it): one authentic individual who questions the authenticity of the things in which the masses find meaning can send people controlled by fear into a deadly rage.
Excuse us while we pause for a breath.
This is a bit of a tricky one. Agnes is our narrator, and we hear events recounted through her perception, but she speaks for the group. She lets us see inside her own life a few times; we learn that she wants her BFF Ursula-Marie's hair and wardrobe, but she spends a lot of time saying "we" instead of "I." Sure, she's pretty freaked out at the thought that Pierre Anthon could be right, but she nestles her doubts firmly inside those of the group. So it's not "I'm doubting" so much as "We're doubting," and it's not so much "I got in trouble," as "we did."
Take this moment, for example: "Sofie screamed and screamed. She screamed so loud and so piercingly it made our ears ring and hurt right to the bone" (23.16). There's no way Agnes could know if everyone else's ears were ringing and their bones were hurting, but she's become so consumed by the group that she can't even use first-person pronouns when talking about her own physical sensations.
By having Agnes narrate the book, Teller is showing us Pierre Anthon through the eyes of his peers. If Pierre Anthon told us this story, it probably wouldn't be much of a story. We'd just get, "Everything is meaningless. I've been sitting in a tree for three months thinking how stupid everybody is. The plums are good, though."
But through Agnes, we see how Pierre Anthon's eccentric behavior affects other people, and the lengths those people go to in an attempt to change his behavior. The plot, the story, the action, take place in Agnes'sworld, the world of Class 7A. After all, nobody's chopping off any fingers up in that tree.
It's the first day of school in Taering, and Class 7A is gathered in Mr. Eskildsen's class at Taering School for another year of learning. But Pierre Anthon isn't down with pretending to care about algebra or diagramming sentences this year. Instead, he stands up, tells everyone that while he's known for a long time that nothing matters, he's just now realized that means that nothing is worth doing.
This is the moment. Pierre's peace-out sets everything in motion in the novel. He's left his classmates reeling with the notion of their own meaninglessness, and now they know what they've got to fight for. Or over.
Having declared that it's all about the nothing, Pierre Anthon heads back home to the hippie commune and climbs a plum tree. When his classmates come to see exactly what his deal is, he throws plums at them and starts spouting nihilism: nothing matters, nothing's worth doing, you might as well just die, etc. He basically says everything but, "Guess I'll just eat worms," which you probably wouldn't say either if you had the option of eating plums.
That's when the rest of 7A decides to teach him that something does indeed matter, and they set about building the heap of meaning. Each kid gives up one thing of importance, then chooses the next person and tells them what they have to give up. Not only do we see the conflict between the person demanding the sacrifice and the one who has to make it, we see the characters' internal conflict (Agnes's fear that her mother will be angry if she gives up her shoes) and their conflict with others in their lives (the beating Hussain gets from his father for being a "bad Muslim" who would give up his prayer mat).
Each additional sacrifice raises the stakes heading into the final showdown, when Jon-Johan pulls the plug.
It's all fun and games until somebody—in this case, Jon-Johan—loses a finger. When he has to give up the pointer of his right hand, he tells the adults, who deal with the situation in different ways: the cops rope off the sawmill like a crime scene, the media either demonizes Class 7A or hails them as artists, and the MOMA offers to buy the heap of meaning as a piece of art. You know it's the turning point because something happens that hasn't yet: the grownups finally get involved, even though it's much too late. Ain't no getting that finger back.
When the media starts to lose interest in the heap of meaning, Taering gets boring again. And, like so many D-list celebrities before them, Class 7A falls apart. If nobody's interested anymore, did the heap of meaning ever really mean anything? Because there's no VH1 studio in Taering, Class 7A can't exactly go on Celebrity Rehab or Couples Therapy, so they have to settle for attacking each other in the sawmill without the aid of clip-on mics or handheld cameras. Agnes breaks free and brings Pierre Anthon back, so there's at least one spectator, but he quickly becomes part of the brawl himself when he starts up with the "nothing matters" bit again. As you can imagine, it's all downhill from here, and then some.
When Pierre Anthon turns his back on his classmates, they kill him, and that night the sawmill conveniently burns to the ground. You might not normally think of a murder as a resolution, but it's been clear all along that Pierre Anthon was doomed. He's the last member of Class 7A to have to sacrifice something, and after animal slaughter, rape, and dismemberment, what's left but murder?
Plus, he's been spouting all that stuff about how the best thing you can do for the world is die, and when a character says something like that, you can guess that they're not long for this Earth. The resolution the other characters gain from his death is iffy at best; Agnes points out that Pierre Anthon's death proves that meaning isn't something you fool around with, but she ends the book by asking, "Is it?" Good grief, don't ask us.