A darkly comic, deeply provocative religious epic

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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.



E.B. White on the tricky valuation of a writer’s time

One Man's Meat

Some writers shame and immobilize me with their brilliance, while others, like Twain, de Vries and Spark,* dwarf my own efforts but inspire me to keep on. It’s hard to pinpoint what separates the two groups; if pressed I’d say it’s an affinity of perspective — a morbid fixation on the absurdities of human existence — combined with precision, bluntness, and humor.

Of late, E.B. White has joined the second group. I’ve been making my way through One Man’s Meat — a collection of essays about leaving New York City for his Maine farm — and I particularly enjoyed this bit from an essay on his failed efforts to raise turkeys for money:

[T]here is nothing harder to estimate than a writer’s time, nothing harder to keep track of. There are moments — moments of sustained creation — when his time is fairly valuable; and there are hours and hours when a writer’s time isn’t worth the paper he is not writing anything on.

I’ve previously mentioned this great aside, in the same vein, from his Paris Review interview:

Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer — he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive for him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink.

I guess the reason writers have to clear the decks is that they never know when the “moments of sustained creation” will come, and they have to be sitting in front of the page, waiting for them — and pushing through the others.

Twain for his essays, de Vries for The Blood of the Lamb, and Spark for everything. 

 

See (and hear) also: a 1942 interview with White on One Man’s Meat, rare recordings of the author reading from Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan, and his response to a fan who wanted to visit him at his farm: “Thank you for your note about the possibility of a visit. Figure it out. There’s only one of me and ten thousand of you. Please don’t come.”