Review: A Great Novel, a Work of Scripture, a Failure, or What?—Adam Levin’s The Instructions

On occasion, we’ll revisit and run reviews of books published in the past, both near and far. This week, guest author Patrick T. Reardon looks back at Adam Levin’s The Instructions (2010, McSweeney’s).

Adam Levin’s 2010 novel The Instructions is nothing if not ambitious.

Weighing in at 1,030 pages, it deals deeply with the interior lives of pre-teens, the hair-splitting debates of Torah and Talmudic scholarship, the question of turning the other cheek, and the status of Jews as outsiders in world society.

It deals deeply too with what its characters call The Arrangement—the oppressive authoritarian, bureaucratic, totalitarian systems of education that exist in virtually every other area of American society. In The Arrangement, people—in this case, teens—are simply data points to be kept in clear-cut lines and rows with no regard for individuality. The Arrangement also features the robotic participation of otherwise good people, and the sadistic glee of some not-so-good people. Think Franz Kafka’s The Trial or Nazi Germany.

The book also deals deeply with the reality or non-reality of religious miracles, Jewish anger at each other, the use of religious powers to kill, the writing of a new Jewish scripture, Israel as a modern Promised Land for Jews, the coming of the Messiah, and the possible presence in this world right now of the Messiah. In other words, this is a book that aims to be significant.

Nonetheless, the reader who spends many hours in Levin’s world—the intricately twined lives of his pre-teen and adult characters in West Rogers Park, Chicago’s northern suburbs, and the city’s North Side—is likely to ask: Significant in what way?

Significant like Herman Melville writing Moby Dick? Significant in attempting to create a new American literary masterpiece, weaving in its complex way myriad themes, styles, tones, languages and stories? Significant like the writing of a new Book of Genesis or, even more, like the writing of a new Jewish Bible? Or significant as a companion work, a new scripture in a modern voice as the biblical books were written in the language of their day?

I believe Levin aims to achieve all of these.

I’m sure that sounds crazy. After all, novelists write novels, and other people write scripture (although, come to think of it, there hasn’t been any new scripture written in the Hebrew or Christian Bibles for roughly a couple thousand years or more). No serious writer would attempt to create literature and scripture at the same time.

And here’s something crazier. I have no idea whether he succeeds.

The Instructions is a novel that, through its central character, 10-year-old Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, seeks to find some modern-day sense—present-day meaning of the wisdom and faith of the Hebrew Scripture. It’s filled with literary flash and muscle-flexing—from a herky-jerky chronology to facsimile social worker reports, from e-mail chains to school essays on arcane subjects to images made of words to footnotes and even a translator’s note.

Its main action takes place during a four-day period in November 2006, in a middle school in a fictional northern Chicago suburb, somewhere up near Glenview. But there are also lengthy flashbacks to Gurion’s earlier years on Chicago’s North Side. Those four days come to a violent climax with a rebellion involving home-made weapons and what may or may not have been a miracle.

It is a thousand-plus pages about the activities, thoughts, and conversations of the brilliant Gurion who, many of the novel’s characters believe, may be the Messiah. He sort of believes it, too. This serious and complex work says that it is a new Jewish Scripture. How am I or any reader supposed to take that?

When The Instructions was published nearly a decade ago, reviews tended to focus on its physical heft: It’s three inches thick! It’s an advertisement for e-books! It weighs three pounds! Okay, it is a big book. Such emphasis on the physical, however, tends to dodge the question of what Levin has or hasn’t achieved. It is easier to talk wide-eyed about the object that The Instructions is and to nit-pick this or that aspect of the book. It’s a lot more difficult to admit befuddlement.

Let me make clear that I think the book is a gargantuan achievement of some sort.

It may or may not be a failure as a Great World Novel. It may or may not be a failure as a Great World Scripture. I can’t say.

But I can assert that it is exceedingly rich in incident, zest, esoteric knowledge, character, passion, rage, invention, rebellion, profound questions, trenchant observation and wit. And I can say, again, that I believe that Levin aimed in writing The Instructions for the work to be a Great World Novel and a Great World Scripture. This may be fanciful on my part. As far as I know, Levin has not addressed this question in interviews. Still, The Instructions is clearly not offered as a huge, beach-read, page-turner along the lines of Stephen King’s The Stand.

A major conceit is that this book was written later by Gurion, translated into Hebrew and then re-translated into English—with the English translation of the Hebrew exactly matching the original English. One of the book’s translators describes The Instructions as “our most important work of scripture but for Torah itself.” For the record, The Instructions totals about 450,000 words. The Hebrew Bible has a little over 600,000.

What does it mean that Levin has a character describe Levin’s novel as “our most important work of scripture, but for Torah itself”? What does it mean that The Instructions is saturated with Jewish thought, yearning, fear, and history and that it claims to sum all of that up in itself?

Is Levin a fool or a con artist? Is he cynically manipulating the history and sacred texts of Judaism to fashion a fashionably ironic novel? Does he believe? I don’t buy the cynicism argument. I believe that Levin is trying to say something very religious, at least in a cultural sense, here. And something very artistic.

A decade ago, this huge and hugely ambitious book landed with a thud. At this point, it seems, maybe, to be on its way to fading completely off the literary map. It doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. The Instructions, however, is a rich, rich read for anyone who likes to wrestle with ideas and see unexpected visions and stand face-to-face with something that doesn’t permit easy acceptance, dismissal or understanding.

I’m not sure this book meets Levin’s ambitions. But if it is a failure, it is a wonderful failure.


Patrick T. Reardon is the author of eight books, including the poetry collection Requiem for David and Faith Stripped to Its Essence, a literary-religious analysis of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence. His poetry has appeared in many US publications as well as in Europe, Asia and Australia. Reardon, who worked as a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years, has published essays and book reviews widely in such publications as the Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Crain’s Chicago Business, National Catholic Reporter, and US Catholic. His novella Babe was short-listed by Stewart O’Nan for the annual Faulkner-Wisdom Contest. His Pump Don’t Work blog can be found here.

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