- A “Heap of Meaning”:Objects, Aesthetics and the Posthuman Child in Janne Teller’s Y. A. Novel Nothing
“Long after literature for adults has gone to pieces, books for children will constitute the last vestige of storytelling, logic, faith in the family, in God, and in real humanism” (333).—Isaac Bashevis Singer
“One way of understanding the postmodernist assertion that the subjects of highly developed western societies are living at the end of history and at the end of the human is to think of these endings as the end of the child, since the child is conceived as the origin of the human” (380).—Jonathan Bignell
“Shut up!” I screamed, but Pierre Anthon kept on. “Why not admit from the outset that nothing matters and just enjoy the nothing that is?” I gave him the finger (28).—Janne Teller
Janne Teller’s Danish young adult novel Nothing, a postmodern allegory about objects, children, agency, and aesthetics, was originally published in Denmark in 2000 under the title Intet and was translated into English in 2010 by Martin Aitken. The narrator Agnes, a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girl living in the fictional town of Tæring, Denmark, tells the story of what happens when Pierre Anthon drops out of school because, he says, nothing means anything. A translator’s note at the end of the novel explains that Tæring, which is a term not translatable into English, is “derived from a [End Page 82] verb meaning to gradually consume, corrode, or eat through, for example in the way rust may eat through metal” (229), signaling that the children inhabiting this novel live in a decaying, corroded place. Our narrator, Agnes, begins the story, perhaps at its end, by explaining, “Nothing matters. I have known that for a long time. So nothing is worth doing” (1). Discussions of nothingness, meaning, and meaninglessness are central to this novel, where the children of Tæring try to counter the nihilistic threats of one of their peers, not through philosophical discussions but by amassing a collection of things, by assembling a “heap of meaning,” a pile of meaningful objects that must, most certainly, through their mass, cultural significance, and collective presence, mean something. The children in Nothing grapple with and ultimately fail to understand—much in the same ways many adults grapple with and fail to understand—where meaning resides, how meaning can be created and expressed, why we need meaning, and the ways in which meaning constantly shifts and evolves. In their desperate attempts to create meaning through this collective project, they become increasingly callous, vengeful, and violent. In these ways, Nothing depicts a contemporary version of childhood that David Rudd describes as “a far more knowing version replacing the Romantic innocent . . . a territory where many book critics are hesitant to venture, wishing to hold on to their islands of ‘childness’” (12). Agnes and her peers are knowing fictional children who reside in a place far removed from Isaac Singer’s idealistic vision of children’s literature as a last refuge for “logic, faith in the family, in God, and in real humanism” (333). These are instead postmodern, posthuman children, though, as I will discuss later, they do much to complicate definitions of the posthuman and perhaps even to give us adult theorists, who discuss such things, a literary finger.
Nothing, in its allegorical depictions of objects, its heady consideration of existential questions and its sophisticated address to younger readers, is as much a work of philosophy or critical theory as it is a work of fiction, though perhaps these genres have a great deal more in common than is often acknowledged. I have argued elsewhere that “There are theoretical texts that use the same tropes and rhythms as literary texts, and, conversely, there are works of literature that playfully and experimentally use language to deconstruct meaning, that work to understand the human condition in ways that feel very much like theory” (Wannamaker 114). Because Nothing is such a text, a work of literature that “feel[s] very much like theory,” it creates an ideal opportunity to use literature to decipher contemporary theories, instead of the reverse practice of...