The Instructions, you lead a rag-tag group of pre-teens self-dubbed the Side of Damage in a holy war against "the Arrangement" — the jocks and teachers at their suburban Chicago junior high school — after which, you deliver your scripture.**
The Instructions, all 1,030 pages of it, captures four days of this struggle. And it's one of the more inventive, exhausting, entertaining, beguiling, hilarious and just awesome (technical reviewer term) novels I've read in a long time. But instead of doing what I just did — stringing together a list of unsupported adjectives and leaving you to trust me that they're true — let me instead make the case why The Instructions is each. Hopefully, what emerges here is a more complete picture of this huge novel than a boring, run-of-the-mill book review could provide.
1. Inventive — Building a novel around a messiah (false or otherwise) is nothing new, but when that maybe-messiah is a 10-year-old "Israelite, Chicago born" who agonizes over whether or not he is the Messiah, and then decides he really wants to be after he falls in love with 12-year old June*** well, kudos for creativity. The Instructions is actually Gurion's scripture, written and published seven years after the events of 11/17/06, the fourth of the four days over which the novel takes place. But to tell his story and give us the best possible understanding of his university, Gurion uses a number of storytelling strategies: He gives us emails from former teachers (Gurion's been kicked out of several Chicago-area schools for fighting, including an incident where he threw a stapler at the headmaster), reports by his social worker in his new delinquent-youth program at Aptakisic Junior High in Dearbrook Park, Illinois, and backstory on how his parents met and fell in love. What's more, Gurion lets us read his ISS (in-school suspension) assignments, where he explains such playground concepts as "snat" and "face," the history of "slapslap," and shows us how to make a pennygun — a weapon created with a balloon and the top of a plastic soda bottle, and his soldiers' weapon of choice. The effect of all these different strategies and style is a much better relationship with Gurion than a strict first-person narrative could've provided.
2. Exhausting — Besides the fact that this wrist-cramping novel weighs about 3 pounds, which is exhausting in and of itself, Levin's characters are extremely, um, thorough. They dissect everything logically and talk to each other in long, polished paragraphs. But these conversations aren't so much digressions as they are scrutinies under magnification to the nth degree — of words, ideas, arguments. They read as logical syllogisms (if, if, if, then) and if you're not in the right mood to be reading them, they can drive you mad, or cause you to doze off — which can be hazardous when you're holding a heavy book. As one example, Gurion spends three pages debunking the Jewish superstition that if a pregnant woman steps on nail-clippings, she'll miscarry. That one in particular is a lot of fun to read, but not all of them are. And, so, parts of the novel are exhausting..
4. Beguiling — Levin's most astonishing trick in this novel is that he quietly winks at his readers, and allows them to be okay with a 10-year-old thinking, acting, and arguing like a scholarly grown-up. He knows it's not realistic, you know it's not realistic, so you just go with it. If you don't, you'll probably stop reading on page 2. Beyond the messiah stuff, the real question of the novel and thus the real challenge for the reader is to understand Gurion's overarching life philosophy. It's not an easy question at all. Gurion is the son of a civil rights lawyer father, presumably far to the left ideologically, who defends anti-Semites and a psychologist mother who is a former member of the Israeli Defense Force, presumably far to the right ideologically. But Gurion's own ideology is harder to pinpoint. His own outlook emerges slowly, piece-by-piece over time, and you really have to pay close attention to get it. The one thing that's clear is that Gurion is frustrated and that leads to violence and damage. What's less clear is why. Does Gurion believe the ends justifies the means? Is damage wrought in the pursuit of higher good acceptable damage?
5. Hilarious — Ranging from slapstick to subtle to sarcastic, Levin brings the funny — it's one of the many carrots that keeps you reading, and willing to forgive the exhausting arguments and logic. Here's one (of hundreds) example: Gurion's teacher tells him to "Mind the cheese doodles, Maccabee." Gurion responds: "The mind Maccabee, cheese doodles" and then explains why he likes that joke.**** Another: Gurion explains, when Boystar is injured, that Boystar's mother is upset because "she was shot in the son." Part of the fun of the novel, too, is how badly Gurion's followers misinterpret how they're supposed to be following him.***** But Gurion, because he's in love, and because he hopes he's the messiah, goes with it and concocts a scheme so fantastical, you can't help but laugh a little.
6. Just Awesome —This is my catch-all, which basically just gives me an excuse to gush. I'm not Jewish, so I'm sure there was much inside-joke-wise I missed. Even so, I loved this book! It's a book I couldn't wait to finish work or showering or eating lunch to get back to. Again, it's really too bad this novel won't find a larger readership (probably much like this review, which is running at a ratio higher than one word of review per page of book reviewed.) The thousand-plus pages and relative unknownness of its author (though, hopefully that'll change soon) will scare most readers away. But I encourage you whole-heartedly to carve out a few weeks and take it down.
(These footnotes are intended to give you an idea of Levin's style, while attempting to mimic part of it.)
*"Hashem is not perfect, I said, and I've never said He was perfect. I said, he's not all-powerful, either."
**There is damage. There was always damage and there will be more damage, but not always. Were there always to be more damage, damage would be an aspect of perfection."
***I said, I used to think I wanted to be a scholar, then a soldier — but now, whenever I'm near you, i start to think I've been confusing means with ends. I think I wanted to be the messiah all along and I didn't know it. I mean, I knew I wished the messiah would come, and a lot of times I wish I was the messiah, but the wishing — it wasn't wanting; there's a difference, I think.... What I'm saying is I want to be the me messiah, now. Or at least I want to bring him. Whenever I'm near you, I do. And I think that all along I thought that being a scholar or a soldier would help me become the messiah, or bring him, but—"
****"I liked that joke. I used the exact same words that Botha had used but the words meant nothing the way I put them in order, and they sounded like they meant something since I said the sentences in the same way he'd said the originals, and with the same rhythm, and that demonstrated that English words were meaningless by themselves, that they were just lung- and mouth-sounds unless they were in the correct order, which was a paradox because the correctness of the order of a string of words depended on what the words meant, but if correct order was what gave words their meanings, then how could their meanings determine the correctness of the order? No one knew, and no one else thought the joke was funny, either."
*****SLOKUM DIES FRIDAY; WE DAMAGE WE