Monday, April 04, 2011

Book Review: "The Instructions" by Adam Levin

The truth is this: I love experimental fiction. Give me stream-of-conscious paragraphs that go on for pages. Give me non-standard usage and invented vernacular. Give me that feeling of finishing a chapter and feeling like you’ve just exerted yourself. Give me a book that you feel you deserve a medal for finishing. Give me a book that makes you pant as you try to catch your breath. No pain, no gain.

Give me The Instructions by Adam Levin, the 1,030 page debut novel that caused people to stare and gasp when I sat reading it at the coffee shop. “Wow, that’s one big book!”

The Instructions tells the story of 76 hours in the life of on Gurion Maccabee, a ten year-old middle school student and prodigious scholar who may or may not be the messiah. After getting booted from numerous Jewish schools in Chicago, Gurion becomes a student at Aptakisic Junior High School where he is sentenced to participate in a program known as The Cage. (A special program for dangerous students, The Cage resembles Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as described in Foucault’s Discipline & Punish. In fact, I couldn’t help but thinking that The Cage resembles something like plate 8 in D&P, which depicts inmates receiving a lecture in the auditorium of Fresnes Prison.) The charismatic Gurion enlists the help of his classmates from the Cage in carrying out an epic and deadly revolt against the school’s formal and informal power structures.

Joshua Cohen, in an unflattering review he wrote for the New York Times, said something extremely intelligent about Levin’s tome. Cohen pointed out the way in which The Instructions resembles Jewish scripture. Though written in the first person, The Instructions has certain Talmudic qualities. Any event in the plot, whether an action or a moment of dialogue, might generate commentary, explicit references to other moments in the text, and digression into subjects that seem at first to be at far remove from the matters at hand. Cohen writes, “[Gurion is] able to command in a single breath assorted items of Judaic arcana: biblical anecdotes, Talmudic responsa, Hasidic homiletics.” The book contains thrilling interpretations of passages from the Torah, including an exegesis of the story of Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing in which Gurion asks who exactly gets tricked. There is also a troubling exegesis of the biblical account of Abram bargaining with Adonai over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Like the endless list of rules and commandments found in, say, Leviticus, The Instructions includes considerable miscellany, such as a thorough discourse on an orthodox form of the children’s playground game “slapslap.”

And, this description makes the book sound terribly tiresome but I didn’t find it to so. The book is laugh-out-loud funny with much of its humor owing its inspiration to the slapstick of Charlie Chaplin, the bizarreness of the Marx brothers, and even the wordplay of Abbot & Costello. In one instance, the Hebrew word for charity, tzedakah, is confused with pop singer Neil Sedaka. The book even pokes fun at itself. As the third day comes to a close, setting up the epic climax on the fourth day, one of Gurion’s friends remarks that this, “Was the longest day I’ve heard of outside of Irish literature.”

In every review I’ve read of The Instructions, Adam Levin’s work is compared to Philip Roth and to David Foster Wallace. A fictionalized Roth actually makes two appearances in the book; I just do not know Roth’s writing well enough to say much about this comparison. Certainly, there is much in this book that is inspired by, if not derivative of, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (The similarities between The Instructions and Infinite Jest are legion, beginning with the fact that each book clocks in at over 1,000 pages.)

It is a shame that reviewers have spent so much time obsessing over comparisons between Levin, Roth, and Wallace, and so little time addressing what I see as the most important thematic element in Levin’s book.

The Instructions is a long and surprising meditation on righteousness. While the form may, on one level, provide a distraction from this theme, in another way the form complements it. Do zealots allow small things to slide? Can you tell a fanatic not to get hung up on the details?

A book like The Instructions is rare in so many ways. You just don’t encounter many novels like this. There’s Infinite Jest and then there’s not a lot else. But, what makes this book so very singular is not its form, but its treatment of righteousness. Literature is full of righteous figures who are toppled, who face defeat. Hubris meets with a tragic end. However, that is just not the case with this book. Even when Gurion’s revolution leads to tragedy, Gurion comes out blameless, morally unscathed. And, that is probably the most fascinating element of this book.

If you've read The Instructions, I'd love to chat with you about it.

Click here to read about other books I've read in 2011