by Janne Teller | translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Pierre Anthon realizes one day that nothing matters, walks out of school, climbs into the plum tree in his yard and taunts the rest of the kids in his 7th grade class incessantly from that day forward. They become obsessed with making him believe that things DO matter - after all, something must matter in order for them to make sense of the world and their lives. As they set out to prove to Pierre and to themselves what matters, each gives up something to a growing "heap of meaning" they create, and soon they prompt each other about what to give up. Gerda forces the narrator, Agnes, to give up her favorite shoes, and in turn Gerda must give up her pet hamster. But then there's stealing involved, and intangible things to give up, and violence ensues. In the end, what matters and what doesn't is more murky than at the start.
The book has an undoubtedly Scandinavian sensibility. Its unemotional stance and matter-of-factness can be tough at times for an American reader more used to effusiveness or judgement. For me, though, that's one of the best things about this book. It doesn't provide provocative situations and then stand back and point to itself, saying, "Look at how provocative I am!" Instead, Teller allows the reader to respond purely, unencumbered by an expectation of the text. Freeing.
I'm rarely shocked by a book. No matter how subversive, provocative, disturbing, or manipulative, I'm usually not bothered. I was more shocked by this book than I've ever been by anything I've read. I was simply amazed by what was happening. And I was even more amazed that I could believe it could happen. Some reviewers have dubbed it a "modern day Lord of the Flies," but I find that comparison superficial at best and insulting at worst. Teller has not placed these young people in a situation where their actions are driven by survival. This book is philosophical at its core. What matters? How do you know? What's worth it? And what if, just what if, the answer is NOTHING? Then what?