"From the moment you are born, you start to die."

So says Pierre Anthon when he decides that there is no meaning to life, leaves the classroom, climbs a plum tree, and stays there. His friends and classmates cannot get him to come down, not even by pelting him with rocks. So to prove to him that there is a meaning to life, they set out to build a heap of meaning in an abandoned sawmill.

But it soon becomes obvious that each person cannot give up what is most meaningful, so they begin to decide for one another what the others must give up. The pile is started with a lifetime’s collection of Dungeons & Dragons books, a fishing rod, a pair of green sandals, a pet hamster – but then, as each demand becomes more extreme, things start taking a very morbid twist, and the kids become ever more desperate to get Pierre Anthon down. And what if, after all these sacrifices, the pile is not meaningful enough?


Books are like meals for me; some are light and tasty, but eventually I hunger for something more substantial. Others are "stick-to-your-ribs;" you feel satisfied afterward, and you remember it for a long time. Janne Teller’s Nothing is a full meal deal. I have not been able to stop talking about it since I read it (twice) before writing this review. Nothing is ready-made for book club or classroom discussions, and it’s guaranteed to provide (forgive me) food for thought long after you have finished reading.

The story centres on a group of 13 and 14 year old classmates struggling with what to do when one of them, Pierre, suddenly declares that "life is meaningless," and promptly climbs a plum tree. From there, he spends his days mocking his friends for their insistence on participating in the world in the face of its meaninglessness, and their inevitable demise. His stance, at first, seems nihilistic. However, a nihilist does not withdraw from the world and shout his beliefs from the treetops, nor does he care whether or not he can convert others to his philosophy. Pierre’s acts belie nihilistic intent, and show that he does care. When he petulantly throws plums at the children and claims that they’re hitting their marks by chance (because aiming "wasn’t worth it"), it seems disingenuous. When he tells Agnes, the narrator, that she will discover her life to be meaningless when she is an adult because, "you’ll find out you’re a clown in a trivial circus," it comes across as a lament. Pierre wants the world to be different than what he perceives. Unlike a traditional nihilist, he is not bent on self-destruction, or outward violence toward those who disagree with him. He wants to find meaning and value, but he doesn’t quite believe it to be possible.

Nevertheless, Pierre’s friends find his actions very disturbing, not least because they secretly fear that he might be right. Desperate and frustrated, the children hit upon the idea of building a collection of objects that are personally meaningful to each of them, in the hope that Pierre will look at it and realize that there is meaning, and come back into their world. At this point, the story takes a critical turn, going from fanciful fable to dark realism. Shortly into the project, the children recognize that none of them has the fortitude to truthfully name and give up, perhaps permanently, their most beloved possession. So a fateful decision is made: each child will choose the item that another child must give up, and there can be no arguments, no deals. As each child tearfully parts with something he or she prizes, resentment and anger begin to build, with no outlet except the power to take it out on the next one in line.

The children’s heap of meaning may be the most important "character" in the book, made up as it is of the things that give value to their world. It is so unique that when news about it is released to the media, it gains status as a work of art. The implications of this new "aesthetic" value for the heap’s meaning, or lack thereof, can make for some wonderful discussion, especially in light of Pierre’s angry comment that, "If that pile of garbage meant anything at all, it stopped the day you sold it for money."

Nothing delves deep into philosophical territory in a way that few modern fiction novels (especially YA novels) do. Within this tale we find themes of nihilism and existentialism, materialism, and fear of nonconformity. Teller makes us think about how we are able to face the reality of death, and still manage to find meaning in life (whether one is religious or not). Most importantly, the novel asks: what creates "meaning?" I’ll warn you that it doesn’t answer all of these questions, but this is a good thing for thoughtful readers. I wish that I could say so much more about this novel. It is a simple tale on the surface, but one with many extraordinary layers.

Review by bookbrowse


18 thoughts on “Nothing”

  1. It sounds very interesting to read, I think I’m gonna get it !
    Thank you very much !

  2. Certainly proof that the ‘meaning of life’ is highly subjective and probably impossible to quantify. Objects are only symbols of what gives us meaning. Sometimes the greatest ‘meaning of life’ for an individual is just expressing love & giving.

    1. I agree. Subjectivity is often under rated in our scientized orientation today particularly here in the U.S. Subjectivity and objectivity are two sides of the same coin. One without the other is incomplete understanding and therefore not understanding at all. I also agree that,at least for me, the expressing of love and giving has tremendous meaning.

  3. Is it existentialism or is it nihilism? Or rather, what are the differences between the two?

    Just because the pile is made up of objects which have meaning to the individuals who contributed them, does that give the pile meaning in the objective sense? Put another way, does the pile have meaning without the people who contributed the objects which make it up?

    It’s like a tribal totem. Without the tribe, how much “meaning” does the totem have?

    1. The only way you can make sense of objects familiar in your particular society, is if they have symbolic meaning. In other words, if the pile of objects contains a picture of a young boy holding a puppy, then we all say “Awwwwwwww” like Pavlovs’s dogs.

      So to answer one of your questions, yes, in a particular society that revers certain objects to have meaning or significance, a common item can have meaning without the person who put it there. However….humans that we are…the presence of a human nurturing or holding an object has the most impact. That’s why I would guess that in the book, ultimately they realize that to really reach the boy, they need to do it as a live group (or at least individually plea)…..but I’m just guessing.;-) Certainly pelting him with rocks was the worst of ideas!

      And yes, there is much difference between existentialism and nihilism, but that would take a small essay here.;-)

      1. Real1:

        “So to answer one of your questions, yes, in a particular society that revers certain objects to have meaning or significance, a common item can have meaning without the person who put it there.”

        Whilst I respect your reply, I think my question was rather that outside of that particular society, beyond that particular society ‘…how much “meaning” does the totem have?’

        Thinking about the book – as reported by Josh – it occurred to me that the group’s best chance of re-absorbing Pierre is to persuade him that they are his best “meaning”, just as he is theirs. The group is his group. The generation represented by it is his generation. They share particularities of time and place and age and culture. They are his fellow travellers to the grave, if you like. They have to persuade Pierre that the best “meaning” they can expect to find is in one another and in their relationships to one another. Social meaning is the best meaning that they can expect to have. And beyond that? Well….it’s a very big, a very open and a very empty universe, populated by little more than abyss-gazing philosophers…^^ And perhaps it is Pierre’s destiny to become one of those…

        “And yes, there is much difference between existentialism and nihilism, but that would take a small essay here…”

        A person who knows the subject ought to be able to answer the question with economy.

        1. Obviously, totems (your example) have little meaning outside their particular culture/society. However there are I suspect, many objects that all societies would recognize that have ‘meaning’….but I don’t see your point in relation to the book mentioned.

          Your description of how the kids handle the situation for Pierre, is nothing more than I already guessed in my last post; that they help the boy with themselves as the true ‘meaning of life’, with their compassion & love for him…possibly as a ‘group’ for the most effect. What other logical outcome could there be, given the premise…he falls out of the tree to his death?

          As far as delineating between existentialism and nihilism in an “economy” discussion, that’s a ridiculous cheap shot that should be beneath you. Feel smug & content that I don’t know, if it serves you better.

  4. I can relate to the kid on the plum tree, haha. I don’t read often stories often, but I may give this a read ^_^.

    1. could be, but it’s all in the telling. i requested it from my local library. i’ll read anything, once.

  5. This book got pretty good reviews – it’s supposed to be a good and thought-provoking read. Coincidentally i ordered it just yesterday… :)

    1. On second thoughts, it sounds to be closer to Roquentin than to Meursault. Sartre’s existensialism’s more hopeful than Camus’, and, as I understood, the “absurd” in Nothing isn’t presented as an end, but as a problem that needs a solution. I believe it is built at the last couple of pages? Really interesting.

  6. Sounds like an interesting read. I may pick it up. I like existential bullshit. Keeps the mind from being constipated by materialism. It may not be worth a fart in a whirlwind but it is worth a try! :) (Sticking to the scatological metaphors this early is very trying! XD)

  7. Right then, Josh.

    I’ve received the book, I’ve opened it, I’ve begun to read it and I am – to say the least – disappointed. And my disappointment can be summed up in a single phrase: The American-English translation.

    One can tell that “Nothing” was originally written in a characteristically minimal – but also lyrical and philosophical – Scandinavian style. The American-English translation, however, reduces the language to the level of an advertising slogan for Chicken McNuggets. And that spoils both the style and the substance of the piece.

    Take this, for an example:

    Nothing matters.
    I have known that for a long time.
    So nothing is worth doing.
    I just realized that.

    Those first three lines are adequate, but that last line – “I just realized that” – reduces the whole thing to the level of some gum-chewing illiterate from Okeefenokee (or wherever). And, stylistically, the same appears to be true for the rest of the book. To the English sensibility this makes a mockery of the entire novel and pretty much renders the thing unreadable.

    So Americanised is the language and phrasing of the translation, that only the place-names and the names of the characters remain to indicate that one is in Europe at all.

    “Nothing” is not the first book that I have had to put back down for this reason. But, on this particular occasion, I do so with more regret than is usually the case.

    I will wait (hopefully) for a proper English translation which actually manages to convey the qualities which the original novel clearly has.

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