by Adam Levin
McSweeney’s Rectangulars, 2010
Yes, you read that right. 1030 pages. I recall reading Jonathan Franzen claim that Americans are afraid of large books (though I can’t at the time of this posting find the damn reference). And to a certain extent, I believe he is correct. I don’t believe he is solely referring to the size of books, but also the depth and breadth of ideas. The Instructions is one of these large books.
Before I get into the review proper, I would be remiss if I didn’t complain about the constant comparisons between Levin and David Foster Wallace. I think the knee-jerk reaction is to compare the two because of the length of The Instructions and the length of Wallace’s own Infinite Jest. I can see similarities in the style and inventiveness in language between the two, but most reviews seem to rely only on the SIZE of the books.
Seriously, you reviewers are doing a disservice to yourselves and to both novels if all you can come up with is, “Hey… these books are loooooong.” So shut up, or try to go a little deeper into the similarities (i.e.: the word-play, the sense of humor, the intelligence in both sentence structure and plot, etc).
I also have to take a moment to talk about the constantly impressive presence that McSweeney’s is within the publishing world. No one else would give a first time novelist a 1000 page novel, nor would a publisher like Harper Collins or Random House be able to do it justice. Big props to McSweeney’s for taking the risk and giving us a fantastic new author and a spectacular, jaw-dropping book.
See more from Adam Levin c\o McSweeney’s in their quarterly literary journal (numbers 16, 18, and 36) and in his book of short stories Hot Pink coming out later this year!
Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee is ten years old. Gurion is as intelligent as he is violent. His acts of violence have caused him to be kicked out of three Jewish schools before he ends up at Aptakisic Junior High School, where he has been placed in a special program called The CAGE. Obvious symbolism aside, The CAGE is where Aptakisic places the most violent and hopeless students to cut them off from the general population.
The novel follows four days in the life of Gurion, in and out of the CAGE. A brief interaction with Eliza June Watermark, when he realizes that he and she have dual yud birthmarks. He then falls in love and begins on the road to revolution (the yud is the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and a pair of them indicates the name of God, specifically Adonai, a name which Gurion consistently uses when referring to God).
The pacing of The Instructions is unmatched, especially given its length. For such a long book, very little seems wasted. Each bit of information informs the life of Gurion and tells of what brought him to be the violent child that he is. One sixty page deviation tells the story of how his parents met and the true story of a crime his father committed when he was younger.
His parents are especially important in his development. During one scene, his mother defends his violence as necessary to him defending himself from other, larger boys (his mother, as psychologist, also trained in the Israeli Defense Force and has taught him much about self defense). In another scene, his father (a defense lawyer who defends free speech, even that of hate groups and neo-Nazis) invites Gurion’s constant steam of resistance. At home, Gurion is constantly told what a good boy he is and what wonderful things he will do some day. Is it any wonder the kid has a messiah complex?
Levin’s characterization is also very impressive. Despite complaints from some reviewers that the dialogue of most of the characters being unrealistic for their age(s), Levin keeps their voices consistent. Intelligent, megalomaniacal Gurion. Violent, psychopathic Nakamook. Twitchy, blue-collar Vincie. Each character has his or her own unique voice, enough that often qualifying a sentence with a speaker is unnecessary.
As the book goes on, Gurion becomes more and more entrenched in the idea of him being the Messiah. Is he? In the end, the book is extremely vague. Even within the final chapter when Gurion confirms that he has been writing The Instructions (constantly referred to as his “scripture”) from Israel, he provides no answers for how he got there, he only writes in questions and suggestions, many less possible than the ones before it.
I highly recommend this book. Given the length and the way that Levin plays with language, it is a bit of a challenge. But the writing, the story, and the characters are engaging and it is the most rewarding read I’ve had in quite some time. Take the time! You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll… probably be disturbed. But an excellent debut novel.