A darkly comic, deeply provocative religious epic

20101029_instructions_AF

I took a hiatus from my reviewing hiatus to write about Adam Levin’s The Instructions for B&N Review. The book runs a little over a thousand pages and, by the end, I would gladly have signed on for another thousand. Here’s an excerpt:

Adam Levin’s dark, funny, and deeply provocative first novel, The Instructions, comprises the scriptures of one Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, an impossibly articulate ten-year old who might or might not be the messiah. When I say “impossibly,” I do mean impossibly, but Gurion is no cutesy child hero. He shares with Oskar Schell — the young, tambourine-playing pacifist vegan of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — a fixation on the horrors of the past, and like Schell’s his story is propelled by a series of unlikely, seemingly symbolic coincidences. Here, though, there is no redemption, only confusion and violence — an indictment of tribe mentality, and of the concept of being “chosen.”

Gurion’s scholarly erudition is so staggering, so monumentally over-the-top, that the accusation of its implausibility is embedded in the book itself. A footnote excerpts a letter from Philip Roth (his fictional counterpart, anyway), who misreads fan mail from Gurion as an adult’s “terrifically cruel and on point” mimicry of “recent so-called Jewish wunderkind authors.” Roth urges him to stop “writing from the unconvincing POV of a boy-genius whose name suggests a messianic fate” and instead to adopt the more realistic perspective of a man remembering his childhood “as a time when he, like so many of us, suspected that he was the messiah.”

Even at five years old, we are told, the boy asked scriptural questions so complex that his mentor, a rabbinical scholar, was moved to transcribe their conversations. No doubt the allegorical touchstone is different for Jewish readers, but for this fundamentalist-raised gentile the obvious echo is of Jesus’ three-day debate, at age twelve, that left Jerusalem’s temple elders astonished. (Luke 2:46-47) At times, like the fictional Roth, I struggled with Gurion’s voice — with the high diction, and the essaylets and other postmodern flourishes — but Levin has an uncanny facility for blending sympathy and satire, for making us care about his charming but dubious hero and for infusing life into this alternate, slightly fantastical reality that’s very much like our own. The Instructions recalls both the real Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, in which aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindberg defeats FDR on an isolationist platform and winds up in the White House, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, in which members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Kidnapped are required to “spend every waking hour” trying to find their savior, who was “kidnapped by the Forces of Evil” at the second coming. And, like Roth’s and Vonnegut’s, Levin’s flights of fancy are placed in service of a deadly serious project. Not only is he, as he recently told The Chicago Tribune, having “a conversation with Jewish literature,” he’s illustrating, in a wholly original way, exactly what sort of catastrophe results when fervent religious conviction meets brute force.

You can read the rest here. See also Notes from an Adam Levin reading, Levin’s Book Notes at Largehearted Boy, Michael Miller’s review in The Observer, Marissa Brostoff’s review at Tablet, and Foster Kamer’s review for The Village Voice.


Comments are closed.