The End of the Affair?

Three weeks ago I reviewed You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik and called it “a novel of big ideas” and “a sexy, enjoyable story” that “reanimates” the great existentialist arguments of Camus and Sartre.

Now commenters are coming forward to say that the ethically problematic affair at the heart of the novel is based on a real-life affair that the author — a former teacher — had with a student. And that the student did not consent to having her private life depicted in this public and transparent way. I’ll refer to these two assertions as “the allegation.”

I’m grateful to Genevieve, who brought this Jezebel article to my attention.

And to Kate, whose comment is worth reading again:

[Knowing that the affair was real] should change the reading [of the book], in my opinion, because the intent is distorted.

Why would he write this story and release it as a novel if so much of it was true? Why wouldn’t he own up to his actions and acknowledge his real role in it. Instead, it seems he is reaping the benefits of being a new upcoming fiction author while masquerading as having spent all his time in Paris just writing.

I was a student of his and I’m still shocked from when I read it in September. I can say that it felt like reading something he kept as a diary during that time I knew him. Most of the situations, characters, and places are true, aside from the admiring male student that only has good thoughts for “Mr. Silver.”

“Marie” is a human being, a girl with real feelings, who has recently had a en even worse shock than the rest of us, discovering that her unfortunate high school relationship and abortion have been recorded in a book. A book that gives her an imaginary voice and has her yearning for her captor. A book that her former lover has been receiving praise, numerous awards, and money for.

An unfortunate relationship that should never have happened in the first place.

Now, do you think he could’ve written this book quite as well if it hadn’t happened?

Thanks, also, to anonymous commenter “hello” who claims to have been Maksik’s student and calls him a “sleazy cocksucker.” I like your candor.

I should mention that I’ve emailed with the author since my review went up, and it was a pleasant exchange.

I’m not in a position to evaluate the truth of the allegation, or to suggest an appropriate punishment or penance if it’s true. But I did read the novel carefully and I want to share some observations about how the allegation changes my understanding of the text.

It’s eerie. Because the feelings of anger, betrayal, shame that are being voiced about the allegedly real affair are also discussed in the novel. It’s as if the novel anticipated all of these reactions and folded them into the text. Even now the novel feels more real to me than the reports and reactions on the web.

Moreover, the controversy surrounding Alexander Maksik feels like an extension of a theme in the novel. Will Silver, the fictional teacher who is allegedly interchangeable with Maksik, applies the basic tenets of existentialism to show his students that life has no inherent purpose, that God does not exist, and that an individual must be responsible for her own choices in life and their consequences. Some of Will’s students take this lesson to heart, but they end up idolizing Will and treating him as an exemplar of how to conduct their lives. Which, of course, violates the lesson. But in a dramatic twist, the students watch Will cause his own downfall, as his affair with the student comes to light and he is summarily fired. Thus, in tragic fashion, Will’s lesson is complete. He becomes an existentialist hero by embracing his own choices—especially those that go against the grain of modern society—and accepting their consequences. And his students learn, by experience, not to place their faith in authority figures.

If the novel says that we should obey ourselves, and not our teacher (who taught us to obey ourselves), then the allegation suggests that we should obey ourselves, and not our teacher (who taught us to obey ourselves (and not even the author who invented the teacher)). In the novel, the lesson is finished when the teacher is struck down. In life perhaps it’s complete when the author is brought low.

You Deserve Nothing is unabashedly romantic about Paris and unabashedly sexy in its depiction of the student-teacher affair. There’s a sense of longing that drips off the page. But at the first hint that the affair—between a 17-year-old girl and a 33-year-old man—was real, I felt my stomach twist. What had been a racy, convention-defying romance in the novel suddenly felt like a craven, embarrassing scandal. Ain’t that something? I don’t know what it means. But we’ve clearly erected a HUGE wall between life and art. In art we can gaze at this type of affair, and even long for it. In life we turn away and point fingers. If the allegation is true, does it make the romantic longing of the novel an abomination?

Final thoughts. Shall we use the term “reverse Frey” to describe the presentation of true material as fictional, since James Frey is the poster child for presenting fictional material as true? And were you aware (thanks, Wikipedia) that if a Son of Sam law had been in effect, we wouldn’t have gotten The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, or The Confessions of Saint Augustine?

Brian Hurley

6 Comments

Filed under "Non-fiction", Hooray Fiction!, how fiction explains the world, review

6 Responses to The End of the Affair?

  1. Thank you Brian! Beautifully written and very thoughtful. Thank you for listening.

  2. m.snowe

    I don’t exactly know what it means either, but I’m glad you’re opening up a dialogue and asking the questions!
    One note, though, on Son of Sam laws: the law you’re referring to (from the Wikipedia site) was struck down because the Supreme Court felt it’s application was too broad. That’s because in NY’s version of the law, there was no distinction between books specifically about a certain crime, and books that mention them in passing. The three books you cite would fall into that latter category, and rightly the justices thought this was unenforceable.
    New narrower versions of the Son of Sam law have been enacted in many US states since that case. It’s also important to remember that the Son of Sam law does not prevent a convicted felon from writing creatively about their crimes (“Warden, remove that inmate’s pen and paper!”), the law is written to ensure criminals are not allowed to *financially profit* from that creative work. It’s basically a tax on the criminal to forgo any profits he might receive from his crime. Many states also usually give those seized profits to victims.

  3. m.snowe

    *its. Bad grammar!

  4. Sharonapple

    Is it romantic? Marie is clearly in love with Silver, but he never really responds in kind. Even if they weren’t found out, the relationship is doomed. Will wants out. He’s attentive and yet withdrawing after the abortion. When Silver leaves Marie the message that the end will be a “relief,” I always got the sense that it was probably true on his part.

    A comparison could be made to Abelard and Heloise — an older teacher with a much younger student have an illicit affair, but Abelard and Heloise strugge to be together. It took castration to end their relationship. Abelard at least believed himself to be in love. Never got that sense on Silver’s part. Never got the sense that Siver was feeling overwhelmed by passion.

    And there were other things that bugged about the book — yes things that gave the sense that he’s trying to rewrite the past and make it better. In the ARC copy I have, at the start of the novel one of the chapter headings is Marie 22 (the same age as the real-life person the character was based on). The fact that he has Marie describe him as almost an ideal lover in one of the chapters — patient, and asking her what she want. (Not so ideal considering the fact that they don’t really discuss birth control. The only thing that jumped out at me was the condom he used the first time they end up in bed.)

    Then there’s the ending. Ms. Carver presses her on whether Marie’s angry, and she says she’s not. (The article in Jezebel says that she had to work off the shame and guilt, and shes clearly annoyed about the novel). The fact that in his final message that he tells her “to be brave” and –surprise– she is (she doesn’t fall apart as much as everyone else does around her). Add to the annoying note that she ends up dreaming and wondering about him in her final chapter, but his ending is all about himself heading off into the world.

    Anyway, this was my take on it. I don’t doubt others had their own.

  5. Sharonapple

    strugge* trying for struggle here. Probably not the only mistake there either. :P

  6. The other day, when I first read the Jezebel article, I blogged about the implications of the story being founded in truth. I wondered if it made the story less compelling, all potential ickiness aside. I’m not sure if alters the story at all, if we’re just examining the text. In reading and studying literature, there’s an emphasis placed on the text is paramount. Without the words on the page, there is no meaning etc. There’s Barthes theory of the death of the author. Having been a lit major, one is always warned not to confuse the text with the author, that there needs to be a separation of vision. That said, personal experiences can inform writing (interestingly, Maksik’s editor was Sebold, whose personal experiences did inform The Lovely Bones). I’ve been wrestling with these possible revelations about Maksik, trying to figure out of it should (from a storytelling perspective) influence the reading of the text. I’m not sure I have a clear answer, or that there is one. (My personal reaction and feelings toward the accusations is another matter entirely.)

    Since I posted about this, two people personally connected to the issue commented on my blog (a former student and the mother of a former student). The insight is profoundly enlightening, and I admire their candor. What strikes me, too, from a personal statement is that no one seems to be coming forward to defend Maksik. Not even Maksik (to my knowledge) has spoken out about this. There have been no former students denouncing these claims. I find that…curious.

    Anyway, this was an excellent post; thank you for positing the thoughts you did and for opening up a dialogue. It’s given me more to think about, certainly.

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