Title: Nothing
Author: Janne Teller
Translator: Martin Aitken (from the Danish)
ISBN: 9781416985792
Pages: 227 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, c2010
Originally published in Denmark in 2000 as Intet by Dansklaererforeningens Forlag

It was then that Pierre Anthon stood up.
“Nothing matters,” he announced. “I’ve known that for a long time. So nothing’s worth doing. I just realized that.” Calm and collected, he bent down and put everything he had just taken out back into his bag. He nodded good-bye with a disinterested look and left the classroom without closing the door behind him. […]
I looked around the class. The uncomfortable silence told me the others had felt it too.
We were supposed to amount to something.
Something was the same as someone, and even if nobody ever said it so out loud, it was hardly left unspoken, either. (4-5)

On the first day of school, Pierre makes this provocative statement and then proceeds to sit in the plum-tree outside the school, pelting his classmates with fruit and discouraging remarks about the state of the world. His classmates, perturbed by his apparent lack of motivation and care, set out to create a pile of meaning in the abandoned sawmill outside of town to prove him wrong. What starts out as a pile of self-chosen prized possessions quickly grows as classmates take turns designating what is most important to their peers. But no one ever expected it to grow to such proportions, and no one knows for sure what Pierre will think when the task is finally completed.

This book took a very long time to get into, probably as a result of the meandering narrative in the beginning. It might just be a problem with translation. You’re introduced to Pierre sitting in a tree with no apparent consequences from anyone in authority; not his parents, not his teachers, not even the police. In fact, the children are the only ones who seem to notice him and take to heart his message of meaninglessness. (Is that a word? I don’t know.)

It’s an interesting concept of meaning, which I think is an idea that teens are examining as they are constantly encouraged to “make something” of their lives and grow up to become “somebody.” And Pierre seems to agree with the philosophy that “You’re born, you live, and then you die, so what’s the point of living?” This pile of meaning that the students begin to create becomes a pile of importance. But then the stakes progressively get higher in terms of things children give up. They go from inanimate objects (the narrator gives up a pair of green sandals) to things that are more valuable, both in monetary value and what they represent to the children, their families, and their town. You can’t look away, even when you want to, because you are pulled into what the next person will demand as a sacrifice.

So where does meaning come from? Is it possible to accurately portray an inanimate feeling in an animate object? And if that object doesn’t have the same meaning for someone else, then is the meaning still there? Or all things relative, and therefore meaningless because the “meaning” or importance will never stay? Can you assign a price to something with true meaning? These are some mind-blowing questions that you get to by the end of the book.

The problem is that you do have to slog through the first half of the book and get over the absurdity of a boy in a plum-tree. There are some awful, horrific, and touching sacrifices by the end of the book that make you realize these kids don’t have any idea what they’re doing. In which case, is their pile more or less meaningful? The philosophical questions interspersed with the shocking outcomes will leave your brain reeling and grasping for answers. This book does not provide them.