Nothing by Janne Teller

On the first day of seventh grade, Pierre Anthon announces that life has no meaning, leaves class, and places himself in a plum tree. His classmates are disturbed by his pronouncement and decide to refute Pierre Anthon’s claim by creating a “heap of meaning”. Each student places something meaningful on the heap, and tells the next student what they should place on the heap. With each round, the stakes grow. The most meaningful things are those we don’t want to part with, but the students are committed to making this “heap of meaning” accurately meaningful.
I first heard about Nothing on John Green’s website during a Question Tuesday.  Someone asked him what was the best book he’d read recently. His response was: “The best book I have read recently is NOTHING, by Janne Teller. It is very popular in Europe but somewhat less popular here, because the book is, to quote reviewers, 'dark' and 'disturbing.' (It is surely both of these things, but so is life.)”

Nothing was written by a Danish author named Janne Teller, and was translated from Danish by Martin Aitken. The writing is exquisitely restrained and deliberate, telling the story without getting in its own way. Nothing is firmly Young Adult and probably wouldn’t be appropriate for readers under the age of 12. But, it is also Young Adult in its unrestrained exploration of ideas, its being unbound by genre, its respect for the reader. This book probably could have been packaged as an adult read, but it’s most appropriate in Young Adult because teenagers are the people who can most benefit from the exploration these kinds of ideas. The ideas are universal; the process the children in Nothing undergo is an expedited, perhaps more tragic, version of every child's transition into adulthood. 
Each child is forced to give something up that they might’ve given up at some point anyway—a boy gives up his favorite bike, another loses the certainty of faith, a girl loses her virginity, another is forced to kill. The transition from childhood to adulthood can be messy, unhappy and traumatic. During this time, life can feel, as Pierre Anthon said, meaningless. But, even after the children forcefully walk into adulthood, life goes on. By the end, each character has begun to seriously doubt whether life truly holds meaning, but they decide to believe in meaning anyway. It's not a pleasant ending, nor does it tie everything up with a bow, but it does resolve the question of meaning in a satisfying way. 

This book has been described as existential. For those who need it, here's a brief review of existentialism from Wikipedia: "the individual is solely responsible for giving his or her own life meaning and for living that life passionately and sincerelyin spite of many existential obstacles and distractions including despairangstabsurdityalienation, and boredom." Existential isn't the same as hopeless. The flaw in Pierre Anthon's logic is that, as long as people choose to make meaning in their own lives, nothing can be meaningless. Pierre Anthon lost track of that and, as a result, life was meaningless for him. 

This is not a book that will make you squee or feel warm fuzzies inside, this is not a book filled with Edward Cullens, this is not a book that will be made into a Hollywood movie. But it’s important. Though the book is, at times, definitely disturbing, I think painting it such a light is unfortunate. It's an accessible book, I think, though it does demand more of the reader than the average YA. And that is a wonderful thing. 


**Thank you to John Green for retweeting this review!