Do you ever feel like getting out of your chair, walking out the door, climbing the next tree you see and shout existential, nihilistic quotes at people who have not seen the light – or rather, who have yet to realise that action is pointless, that living is futile?
Are you still in your chair?
Pierre Anthon climbs up a tree and like the town crier he scolds and spurts one-liners at the adolescents who walk under the plum-tree on their way to school to learn how to become proper citizens. In the first week of 7th grade he is already fed up with the world and its inhabitants. And in the quiet little town of Tæring (Danish for corrosion, also a popular saying, “at sætte tæring efter næring”, which basically means to live within one’s means) his actions sets off a sequence of events of surreal proportions. The kids are upset and adamant that he will not persuade them to join his ‘dark side’. But he gnaws at their insecurity one by one, and the frustration grows.
“If you live to be eighty years old you will have slept thirty years, gone to school and done homework for nine and worked for about fourteen years. Since you already have spent more than six years being children and playing and you’ll need at least twelve years to cook, clean and take care of children you have nine years at the most to really live… And then you choose to pretend like you are succesful at playing a game that means nothing when you could be enjoying those nine years right away.”
So what do they do? What children in novels tend to do; they form a secret club with the sole purpose of finding a way to show Pierre Anthon that there are things of importance in this world. Each member will give up the most important thing that really means something to them, and as the kids go down the line the suggestions go from sweet to painful to surreal to down right nasty. There is a long way from Agnes having to give up her green summer sandals to Sofie and her virginity, and things rapidly spiral out of control. What starts as a joint bond between class mates who seek the opposite of nothingness to show Pierre Anthon evolves into a spiteful contest that reeks of payback and ignores all societal boundaries, both morally and legally.
Janne Teller’s ‘Intet’ (English ‘Nothing‘) received the Ministry of Culture’s Children’s Book Award in 2001 and its content caused an outcry both domestically and internationally. Adults were worried that the book would spur on suicide amongst adolescents, some schools banned it from entering the curriculum and book shops refused to sell it. In that sense the book’s topic has awoken a fear in people – the same fear that is seen over and over when literature is debated. Where does one draw the line? How much power can we grant a book before things get out of hand? We all know how scared people are of ‘Mein Kampf’ – the book is a continuous embodiment of all the evil in this world and its words are like something extraterrestrial; if you read it you will grow evil.
Now, before you get your knickers in a bind, I would like to explain. Words are powerful – like the character Max in Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’ writes in his story for Liesel, you can rule the world with words and make them into iconic symbols of good and evil. And so some people are scared of the power of these words by the force of the value they put in them and choose to silence it by bans and regulations. Not realising that in doing so, they are co-affirming this power, making it more than it needs to be.
Teller’s novel is morbid and gross and plays with human fears – what we are capable of when we cooperate is not always for good. And as far as children’s or young adult books go, she joins those in a relatively new literary trend that doesn’t want to tell children how to live their life through exemplary fiction and fantasies of adventures in far of places (reminiscent of the Famous Five), but rather question them and those around them in settings they know; their home, their school, around their peers. Adult fiction authors have sought to push boundaries just about everywhere they can, and it should come as no surprise that children’s authors would want to push their very own boundaries. But unlike authors of adult fiction, children’s books authors still have a very limited space to go wild in if they want their stories to be published and sold – children’s and young-adult fiction is supported by strict notions of what children can and cannot stomach, much of which originates in romantic illusions and has not been up to par with the reality of children’s lives today. The rearing of children has undergone several changes in a very short amount of time and there are many who believe that children are tougher than we give them credit for. I suspect that what people are really afraid of is themselves. Following the logic that there are two sides of everything, no reading should go unchallenged. Even so, reading has evolved into a very solitude activity, and in the case of children and their limited time spent on earth experiencing and dealing with situations unknown to them, a good discussion about the books they read with peers and adults might just open up new doors of reasoning and critical positions. Which means time away from your navel-gazing important grown-up stuff.
Maybe that’s also something ‘Intet’ tries to convey – the complete lack of adult inclusion is worrying. Adults are authoritarian figures, those who must not know what children are up to because they are practically the enemy, stopping everyone in their tracks. Which means that the children can only reason with what limited experience they’ve got and with no one to bounce off of.