Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Instructions: How To Review a Massive Novel in Six Simple Adjectives

(Much like the very-long novel itself, I fully realize this very-long review won't appeal to most readers. For that, I make no apologies — brevity not being the soul of wit here, hopefully. But if you've heard of The Instructions or Adam Levin and are the least bit intrigued, I'd suggest you make at least a good skim of what follows. This is a novel you should read.)

Imagine the frustration: You may or may not be the Messiah, destined (or not) to lead your people to "perfect justice." But the world is imperfect and so is the god who rules it.* So what do you do? If you're Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, the 10-year-old protagonist of Adam Levin's debut novel, 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..

Adam Levin
3. Entertaining — You don't pick up a 1,030-page novel and expect that the story alone will keep you reading — unless the name on the front is Stephen King or Tom Clancy. Levin's prose is magnificent — as entertaining in spots as it is exhausting in others. Did I mention Philip Roth has a cameo? As does a  Smashing Pumpkins song. That was fun. Plus, characters have names like Boystar, the Janitor, and My Main Man Scott Mookus. Now, to address the 600-lb gorilla — comparisons to David Foster Wallace: Yes, they are appropriate. And never is this more clear as we're thinking along with a character as s/he spells out an argument. That ability to allow his readers to see into his brain as he wrote was Wallace's gift, and it's Levin's as well. And it's infinitely entertaining to read prose written that way. But as amazing as it is that Levin keeps you interested in such a small universe over such a short period of time, the novel picks up some pretty amazing speed after the halfway point. I read about the last 300 pages in what seemed like five minutes.

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."



  1. nice review! i have a signed copy of this from levin's reading at the oak park library but i haven't cracked it yet. i'm trying to decide if i should read this or infinite jest first.

  2. Well, I read your whole review and it's made me very intrigued about a book which I haven't heard of otherwise!

  3. i want to be interested in this book (that is such a stupid statement - but i want to want to read this book when i get back to the states in about a year), but i worry it's just my old mcsweeney's habit coming around. i'm drawn in by the design of their books, then i start reading and, with the exception of 'bowl of cherries' and 'what is the what,' wonder why the hell i spent $20 on a book i'll never read. they do look good on a shelf, though. when i check this one out of the library (compromise, save $$$), i worry i'll like it less for being from mcsweeney's, because by now i figure the design will be good, the story less so.

  4. I WANT TO READ THIS. and thanks for your completely thorough review! This is what more of my reviews would look like if I could muster up the energy and motivation to spend more quality time writing them. New years resolution.

  5. Wonderful review Greg. I've seen this book reviewed several times and they were all great.

  6. Holy shit. Now there's no way I'm not reading this. Blogging will lead me to sell my body to my book store. Well played Mr. Zimmerman!

  7. I've got it, and maybe I'll bump it to the top of the list if it makes the Tournament of Books shortlist.

  8. Not heard, hence not read, but my TBR has another peak. thanks

  9. Levin teaches at my school. My roommate just hate a class with him actually, so I've been hearing a lot about this book. Glad to see it somewhere outside of Columbia's halls!

  10. Hmmmm. Methinks I should put this one on the to-read list. I think I'll let my biceps recover once I've finished War & Peace before I attempt this one.
    Nice review. It does sound like an interesting novel.

  11. Great review, as always. This is one I will have to try in the coming months. In fact I have a few weeks off before school..I am off to find the book!
    Happy Holidays

  12. What an interesting way to review a book. Not "too" long at all, just thorough. Kind of like your description of the book...

    There's a lot going for this book that could make me pick it up, but I'm hesitant for two reasons. The first is that those giant subtle, sarcastic books can often fall on my bad side of sarcasm. There's a fine line, in my mind, and most books seem to cross it frequently.

    The second reason is that though I like my realty suspended every once in a while, I have a particular dislike of books with kids that talk and behave too much like adults. These two points won't necessarily keep me from The Instructions forever, but for now I'm going to stay back...

  13. I'm so hesitant to read books that are recently published, worried that I'm getting drawn in by hype that whirls around newly published books, not allowing time to pass and see if the hype is justified. But you are soooo enthusiastic....

  14. I love that you reviewed this in a list of six adjectives. I am a compulsive list maker and when I'm feeling lazy, I review books in lists of what I liked and what I didn't. This is a much cooler "list method" of reviewing a book. As for the book itself, it sounds pretty intriguing. I don't know if I'll get to it anytime soon, as the TBR looms large this year, but I hope to read it sometime.

  15. @Joel - Wow, that's a win-win decision! My recommendation: Do The Instructions first - Levin's a little less, um, complex than DFW, so The Instructions will help ease you into Infinite Jest.

    @Marieke - Thanks for plowing through the whole thing - hope you enjoy it if you try it!

    @Ellen - I also love the cover designs (and lack of dust jacket) on McSweeney's titles. But you can rest assured the story and writing here are both very, very good.

    @IngridLola - Ha! Thanks for being nice and saying "thorough" instead of "way too damn long." I'm not sure writing a review this long is always a good strategy, but it's hard to fit a 1,000-page brick into a short-and-sweet review, especially one as good as this one!

    @Man of la Book - Well, I'd have to say they were all right! ;) Thanks again for the re-tweet.

    @Ben - Yes! Mission accomplished, then - between this and Infinite Jest, you've got quite the few fun months of reading ahead of you!

    @Amy - I'd say bump it up anyway! ;)

  16. @Parrish - Give it at try! Sometimes the more obscure the book, the better the reading experience, right? ;)

    @Letter - I'm hoping "hate" wasn't a Freudian slip there. ;) What did she have him for? I've been thinking of trying to get a hold of Levin to do an interview (I'm in Chicago, too), but with the holidays and all, might be tough.

    @Suzanne - Yeah, your arms may need a rest before taking on this one. ;) It is a VERY interesting novel.

    @SariJ - It's a great "winter" read - so yeah, it might make a perfect over-the-holidays book! Happy Holidays to you as well!

    @Biblibio - Of your two concerns, the second one is probably the one you'd have the most trouble with in this book. Yeah, there's some sarcasm, but it's certainly not a pillar of the writing or anything. But, yes, these kids definitely speak and think like adults - in some ways. But in many others, they're just kids. And that's part of why I loved the book. That tension. Not sure how Levin pulls it off without totally annoying his reader, but he does.

    @readerbuzz - I know what you mean about the hype - I still haven't read any of the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo books, 'cause the hype's scared me away. But, in all reality, there hasn't been too much buzz about this novel - I wish there were more, actually! This book really deserves a much wider readership.

    @L.L. - Well, it could be argued that the list of adjectives actually was kind of a lazy strategy. ;) But thanks for your kind words.

  17. what a great review. i've not read the comments, my eyes hurt after making it through the post, so i'm probably repeating other people when i say that:

    your enthusiasm is by far the biggest selling point. i love it when people love books, and it sounds like you loved this one. 1000+ pages is scary, considering i'm still not sure if i love or hate Infinite Jest three years after reading it... but i'm having a look at this next time i'm in a bookshop.

  18. Great review. I carried this around at the bookstore for a bit the other day. It feels like a small suitcase, but I'm sure I'll buy it eventually.

  19. Great review. It seems if you're encouraging people to invest the time it takes to read a 1,000 page novel, you may as well invest the time convincing them and letting them know what they're getting into with a long review! I've been thinking that very long novels are nice because when it takes a long time to read something, it forces you to spend more time in that world, with those characters. Thanks for passing this along.

  20. One word response to your review: Inventive! Thanks for putting this book on my radar.

  21. @Ben - Sorry for making your eyes hurt ;). Yeah, I am really enthusiastic about this book - not the least because it's a novel that deserves a wider readership than it'll probably get!

    @Laura - It is not a light book! Hopefully its weight is the only thing deterring you, though. ;)

    @Robyn - Hey, that sounds like a great justification to me for the overly long review! And you're right about the long novels and the chance to real inhabit characters' world - really the case here.

    @bibliophiliac - Thanks for the kind words and the comment!

  22. I LOVE this review! You've said so much of what I thought about The Instructions, and in a clever and fitting format. So basically, yeah, I agree with you on all points and I DEFINITELY do not think this post is too long. At all.

    Also, thanks for reminding me about "Starla." I squealed with glee when that character was introduced and her grunge-loving parents mentioned; I was obsessed with The Smashing Pumpkins in high school. I always thought Starla would make a cool name for a kid, but (alas!) couldn't get the husband on board.