Nothing by Janne Teller, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, is the story of a group of seventh-grade students who decide to prove that life has meaning. In the process, they destroy much of what they feel matters most.
The novel is set in a fictional town, Tæring, whose name comes from a Danish verb that means "to wear away or corrode." This setting is realistic to the extent that the characters exist in a contemporary town, go to school, get grounded by their parents, and so on. However, the story is more allegorical than realistic. The main purpose of the work is not to develop characters or relay an adventure, but rather to ask an existential question: How do we make meaning?
The allegorical feel of Nothing is enhanced by its narrative style. The story has a first-person narrator, Agnes. However, she uses mainly the plural “we,” giving the sense that the whole class is thinking and acting as one. There are moments when the scope of that “we” seems to reach out and include the reader, creating the impression that we too are forced to take on the task of making meaning—and that we too may corrupt everything that matters if we try.
Nothing begins on the first day of school in Tæring. Pierre Anthon stands up in front of his seventh-grade class and says:
Nothing matters. I’ve known that for a long time. So nothing is worth doing. I just realized that.
He walks out of the room, leaving the door open behind him, and does not return.
The kids in the class are tempted to follow Pierre Anthon, but they also want to hang onto the idea that they “amount to something.” They reason that if nothing matters, nobody matters. None of them wants to accept that idea, but they are terrified it may be true.
From that day on, Pierre Anthon spends all his time in a plum tree, pelting his classmates with plums as they walk to and from school. He mocks them for going on with life in spite of death and in spite of the fact that nothing they do can have any lasting effect.
The class cannot put up with this treatment. Jon-Johan, the leader, gathers everyone to figure out how to force Pierre Anthon to come down from the plum tree. Agnes suggests that the boys beat Pierre Anthon, who is renowned for being a fierce fighter, but the boys are too afraid. The kids dismiss praying as a stupid idea, and complaining to adults is out of the question because they will have to explain why Pierre Anthon bothers them in the first place:
Which we can’t, because the grown-ups won’t want to hear that we know that nothing matters and that everybody is just making like it does.
Finally the kids decide to throw rocks at Pierre Anthon. At first most of them miss, and Pierre Anthon mocks them, but eventually the kids knock him out of his tree. Everyone is jubilant, feeling they have won. Two days later, however, Pierre Anthon is back up there shouting insults.
Jon-Johan calls another meeting, where Sofie says, “We have to prove to Pierre Anthon that something matters.” Everyone seizes on this idea, and they all gather in an old sawmill to make a pile of objects that matter. At first they bring old toys and objects they collect from old people, such as photos of dead family members and a thirty-year-old rose from a bridal bouquet. The kids are nervous, though, because they know that none of these objects matter enough to them. If that is the case, why would they matter to Pierre Anthon?
Jon-Johan decides the group has to change tactics. Everyone has to bring his or her own most prized possessions instead of those of others. Dennis offers his Dungeons & Dragons books, but he tries to hold back his four favorites. The others bully him until he gives those up, and then Dennis demands that Sebastian give up his favorite fishing rod. Sebastian demands a soccer ball from the next classmate, who demands a favorite pair of earrings from the next. Agnes is forced to give up a pair of sandals she especially loves, and she gets back at Gerda, the girl who suggests this, by demanding Gerda’s pet hamster.
After this, kids begin demanding objects that are more and more dear to the people who own them: a Danish flag, a diary, a certificate of adoption, and so on. Eventually the demands come around to Elise, who is asked to give up her dead baby brother. Digging up a coffin is a big job, but the kids agree it must be done. They draw lots, and the six who lose sneak out to the graveyard to steal the tiny coffin. After it is removed, the kids do not have enough dirt to refill the hole, so they steal two gravestones and bury them in the baby’s place. On their way to the “heap of meaning” with the coffin, they are followed by Cinderella, an old dog who afterward refuses to leave the sawmill.
From this point onward, the additions to the heap of meaning tend to destroy whatever the children hold dear. Ursula-Marie has to cut off her hair and add it to the heap. Then she insists that Hussain give up his prayer mat. When he gives in, his father beats him badly and says he is “not a good Muslim.” The...
(The entire section is 2149 words.)