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Nothing

Nothing - Janne Teller Although I do pay a little attention to YA news, I heard about Nothing from an Italian bookstore newsletter, promoting the brand-new Italian translation. The pitch made the book sound so scandalous I just had to check it out (and I wondered, would something like that even get published in the US?). Turns out that not only had it been published in the US, my public library a block away had a copy, checked in and on the shelf.Schoolgirl Agnes narrates the story of her 7th grade class, from the first day of school in the fall through to the spring. One of their classmates, Pierre Anthon, drops out to sit in a plum tree all day and taunt them with his discovery that nothing matters, nothing has meaning. The rest of them get so annoyed that they decide to challenge him by producing evidence of things in their lives with meaning—and the lengths they go to collect this evidence provide the horror and the scandal. And, yeah, it quickly and smoothly gets really creepy and disturbing. Kids that age shouldn't be able to even think of such cruelty, let alone enact it. Would I really want my nieces to read this book?(I should note here that I've never read Lord of the Flies, but my understanding is that the kids there are in an extreme situation, without adults. Here, they're just normal Danish small-town kids; they live at home, they go to school and church—and every once in a while they meet secretly in an abandoned sawmill to advance their gruesome project.)It's a really quick read—all sorts of typographic tricks help disguise the shortness of the text, which I suspect is under 30,000 words. But it's also quick because it pulls you in with a one-track narrative where you're always wondering how the kids are going to top what they've just done.The language is simple and direct, appropriate to the 12 year old narrator. On only a few occasions is it slightly clumsy, belying its Danish origins, but mostly translator Martin Aitken succeeds. He's particularly good with one of Agnes' stylistic refrains: Anytime she needs perspective on an observation, she pauses the narrative and inserts a paragraph of three short, even one-word, sentences: Adjective. Comparative. Superlative. This must be a piece of Danish grammar taught in 7th grade and Agnes is half-consciously practicing it—but some adjectives don't have regular comparatives or superlatives, and even if they do they don't necessarily translate directly into English. What we see is a young girl testing the bounds of exaggeration in language, just as she and her classmates are testing the bounds of appropriate action in life.Turns out it's easy to go too far.