When I read early novels by great authors it is not that I am unimpressed, it is more that I have read the authors at their best already and have thus spoiled myself. Pynchon’s V is by far my least favorite Pynchon novel. Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System was good until I read his later stuff. Basically, the more a writer writes the better s/he gets at it. As a result of this fact of life, or so it seemed, I had reason to be a bit nervous going into Adam Levin’s The Instructions. It sounded incredible. A literary epic in the vein of Foster Wallace, DeLillo, and Pynchon about a Jewish boy-genius who keeps getting himself expelled for having one too many messianic tendencies? Sign me up! Are you kidding me? That is the coolest idea for a novel I’ve ever heard. My degree is in Religious Studies, focusing mainly on existentialism and postmodern philosophy, but my favorite class that focused on a particular religion was far and away Judaism. Being raised a devout Conservative Christian and then breaking from it, Judaism (the class) opened my eyes to an entirely different way of understanding the Bible I had so loved to hide behind. Hearing my professor, a Reformed Jewish man, explain it in such a vastly different manner was earth shattering in the best way imaginable. Since that class I’ve had more than a casual interest in the religion, and books like this call out to me on a personal level.
I have known about this book for a year or so, but I didn’t know what it was. Basically, when you google something like Don DeLillo’s Underworld or some other tome of a book you’ll inevitably see pictures people have posted of their collections of massive novels. The Instructions is always the biggest. See:
Clearly the novel is massive. But that’s no big deal. It wasn’t, at least, until I learned that The Instructions is Adam Levin’s first novel. Life isn’t fair. I know he studied under George Saunders at Syracuse… but to come out with something like this as your debut novel is unbelievable. Now don’t get me wrong, everyone knows that college blowhard that’s writing a novel that is way too long that no one will want to read and it’s full of angst and who-am-I and blah blah blah blah blah. There is no shortage of people that write things that are too long that have no business being so long. But get this: The Instructions is great. Not only is it great, but I wasn’t ready for it to be over when it ended. It may be 1030 pages, but it really didn’t feel like it was. The story went by quite fast and I never once felt bogged down in semantics or just wordy bullshit.
Everything happens in the span of four days. Gurion Ben-Judah Maccabee is sent to the principal’s office where he then meets Eliza June Watermark and falls in love with her. Levin very much plays with the notions that these kids are ten to twelve years old, yet their speech is Dostoevsky-like, meaning that the dialogue doesn’t read like a normal person would expect a character to speak. No one in reality philosophizes all the time, but Dostoevsky’s characters do nonetheless. In this case, ten year olds don’t speak that eloquently or with much of a vocabulary, but Levin’s characters do. After this, there are two and a half days of Gurion explaining to his friends that they are on “The Side of Damage” and that they are held there by “The Arrangement”; copious soliloquies on Torah and the nature of Adonai (G-d), and an assortment of emails from former teachers and Gurion, and essays by Gurion that take you deep into this boy genius’s deeply flawed psyche. Gurion Ben-Judah is very much an anti-hero, but you don’t necessarily find yourself rooting against him. Levin’s best quality is the depth of being that he creates in each character. All of them are flawed, most nasty in their morals. The story hits you hard at moments where characters you have an extreme dislike for cause you to suddenly to agree with them, even if it is for a mere paragraph. It is in these moments you realize that you have been fully enclosed within the mind of Gurion Ben-Judah and you’re thinking is a bit warped. You may ask yourself in the end why these kids all follow him and love him so dearly.
Well, the answer is in the fact that you loved him, too. Nothing he does for the first 800 pages of the novel is that bad in the scope of things. It almost seems unfair, even now, to call him a religious fanatic because it’s so dismissive of a term. He is possibly the most complex character I have ever experienced in literature, and even now I don’t know what to think other than simply marvel at the density of his being. In many instances he is taking his Jewish beliefs and studies to their logical ends, enacting the same things he studies again and again in Torah. He is so many Torah characters rolled into a single child that I fail to find the words to adequately express just how interesting Levin paints him. That is just it. The book requires multiple readings, and I am sure that in each reading, if you were to choose a single famous Jewish father from Torah (Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Joshua) then you could understand much of Gurion’s reasoning from that character’s perspective. Levin ends up playing with this, critiquing both the conservative view of Terrorism (Anyone not like Us) and the Liberal view (Terrorism is all about perspective). Gurion is a terrorist… I guess? I think, much like Levin, I am tired of the word. It seems only to be used when pure agenda is involved.
Read this book. It is the best debut novel I’ve ever read and I’m so excited to read the next one Levin publishes. It has the elements of all the greats he has read thoroughly while maintaining his own unique voice and style. I loved it. The Instructions has become one of my favorite books.
Recommended to: Once again, those who have entirely too much time on their hands, those who have a working understanding of Judaism and want to read a fascinating and completely Jewish novel, and those who are yearning for a massive literary epic.
Avoid as if it’s Netflix and You KNOW you should be writing: Those who know absolutely nothing about Judaism (You should read a primer and then read The Instructions), but really that’s it. It is excellent and it’s really not difficult to read whatsoever.