You may have heard by now: Alexander Maksik, graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and former teacher at the American School of Paris, has written a provocative novel about a student-teacher affair that’s allegedly based on real events from his own life and the lives of his students. In other words, he is accused by some of trying to pass fact for fiction, as if the line between the two dare not be blurred.
Recall back to 2006, when James Frey was blasted for fabricating large portions of his massively successful “memoir” A Million Little Pieces. According to some, Frey lied, embellished and fudged too many details to be able to call his book non-fictional. The problem, apparently, was that it had been miscategorized. If he had called his book a novel, what would these people have said? What could they have said?
Now Maksik, a man who has purportedly done the opposite, finds himself in a similar mire of questions about authenticity and authorial licence. The issue seems to be that You Deserve Nothing puts the veil of fiction on events that are not only true, but ones that might be deemed morally objectionable.
The novel, as it is billed, tells the story of Will Silver, a charismatic teacher at the International School of France (ISF) in Paris, where he is regarded by his students as something of an intellectual heart-throb. His female students have crushes on him, and his male students want to be him. Everyone yearns for his acceptance.
Two students in particular – Gilad Fisher, a quiet and introverted young man, and Marie de Cléry, who attends ISF but is not a student of Silver’s – find themselves drawn into the teacher’s orbit. Gilad sees Silver as a mentor and father figure; he even claims to be “in love [with Silver]the way you are with an actor or a guy on stage with a guitar.” Marie, on the other hand, stumbles into an affair with Silver almost by accident: a drunken night of dancing leads to a series of illicit encounters that, initially, are more about making her friend jealous than genuine attraction. The fling awakens her once-dormant sexuality but sends Silver spiralling into a detached, depressive state, causing Marie to remark, “I started to have the impression that I was making love to a ghost or a phantom or something.”
Maksik chose to write in the voices of all three characters – Silver’s, Gilad’s and Marie’s – which provides the novel with a richly layered sense of diversity and narrative ambiguity; it is also this choice that has Maksik’s detractors up in arms about appropriation of voice. If the book is based on true events, does Maksik have any right to adopt the voice of the student with whom he had an alleged affair? What if he’d called the book a memoir? Would he be accused of lying and embellishment? If he’d used only the teacher’s voice – his own voice – would he be denounced as some sort of apologist for sexual relationships between teachers and students, or lauded for wanting to set the record straight regarding an intimate and misconceived event from his past?
These are circular questions. The answers will vary. It is absurd to place a work of art under an exclusive banner marked either fact or fiction. Novelists are constantly fictionalizing their lives; we either recognize ourselves in their words or we don’t. Indeed, for many fiction writers, life and art are indistinguishable. In this reviewer’s opinion, it matters little how a work is categorized; what matters more is that we pay attention to it.
Stacey Madden’s first novel, Poison Shy , will be published this fall.