The Instructions — Adam Levin

Adam Levin’s début novel The Instructions is long. It’s very long. It’s too long.

Or, more to the point, it’s too long to be so mediocre.

This is not a fair criticism, especially considering that I have only read about 35.5% of the book. 8 chapters. 366 pages. I have no conclusive evidence that the next 664 pages won’t be the kind of mind-blowing read that can justify taking up over a thousand pages. Significantly though, there’s nothing in the first 366 pages that especially compels me to continue reading. I give up. I abandon it. Although reading is hardly a quantitative experience — reading and digesting a page of Melville requires more sustained concentration and energy than a page of, say, Bukowski — it stands to reason that I can read two or three novels in the time it would take finish The Instructions. And if I spend my (limited, I am a human and am going to die at some point) reading time reading three novels instead of finishing Levin’s book, it’s likely that at least one of them might be good, even great, while I’m pretty sure that The Instructions is going to continue its middling trajectory.

So what’s it about? It must have had an interesting premise for me to read 366 pages, right?

Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee is a 10 year-old seventh grader (he’s been promoted, sort of) who is forced to attend a special program called “The Cage” after being expelled from his first three schools for various violent acts. Gurion is a hyper-intelligent, budding rabbinical scholar with serious Torah-interpreting skills. He’s also pretty much the toughest kid at Aptakisic Junior High, where, despite being only ten, he kicks ass left and right (his mom is a former Israeli commando). The novel takes place over four days in 2006, as Gurion declares his love for June Watermark, meets a new friend, and begins to rally the behavioral disorder kids against The Cage’s totalitarianism.

The opening scene of the novel is an engaging piece — Gurion and two friends take turns simulating water boarding on each other during a gym class held in a pool. Then, in the locker room, a fight. Gurion loves to fight, despite his inkling — or, at least the inkling of others — that he may be the potential messiah. This obsession with Jewish (“Israelite,” Gurion would correct me) identity seems to be the main thrust of the novel. Gurion, who is the “author” of the novel (which he refers to as “scripture”) speaks authoritatively and eruditely about Torah and religious philosophy. In fact, he speaks like a fully matured scholar who has taught and studied religious philosophy for decades. One can allow this conceit of the novel: sure, Gurion is special, he can fight, he’s a genius, sure, that’s what drives the plot–but Levin wants to extend this genius, or at least rhetorical flair, to almost every other character.

The effect is by turns grating and numbing, as we are subjected to page after page of dialog that is meant to sound witty or empathetic or just plain flavorful but is more often silly or inauthentic or, at worst, too fucking precious for words. The cartoonish dialog, rife with fake slang that no middle school kids ever used, wouldn’t be so bad on its own; in fact, it seems to go hand in hand with Levin’s goal, which appears to be slapstick of some kind. Only he (or Gurion) repeatedly calls attention to the slapstick, commenting on it, even pointing out how the reader should appreciate it.

This meta-textual attention is at work at all times. In particular, it’s there in the long (oh my god are they long) descriptions of each and every action that takes place in the prose. Gurion feels the need to analyze every last little detail, to load it with preternatural significance; these lengthy passages scream for an editor. The arrangement of the text is of course meta-textual as well: it purports to be a work of Gurion’s authorship, and includes a variety of texts from his “personal file” including emails, detention records, essay assignments, and, in one glaring case of squandered potential, a psychological report. And yet in all these documents, there does not seem to be any perspective outside of Gurion’s; when Gurion’s therapist comments on his behavior we learn nothing new, nothing different — we only see a confirmation of Gurion’s highly perceptive intelligence. It is grand solipsism on the largest of scales.

Which brings me to the David Foster Wallace comparisons, which are probably what got me interested in The Instructions in the first place. Granted, The Instructions may have facile similarities to Infinite Jest, but the books differ tremendously in how the reader must engage them. IJ is pluralistic and heteroglossic; The Instructions is essentially a monologue. IJ invites the reader to play, to pursue mystery; The Instructions, despite its volume, seems to contain just one mind. And maybe that’s the problem. Reviewers have compared Gurion to Hal Incandenza — and it’s true, both are bright, troubled young men — but The Instructions seems to be lacking a Don Gately.

Looking over my comments, they seem harsher than I perhaps intended. I believe that Levin has great talent and is surely a keen intellect with stories worth sharing. More to the point, I think that there might be a good novel somewhere inside of The Instructions – only I’m pretty sure it’s much, much shorter.

The Instructions is new in hardback from McSweeney’s.

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15 comments

  1. irunfrombears · January 24, 2011

    I read The Instructions along with a couple hundred others in The Rumpus Book Club. First, it is a VERY long book. Second, most of the action and the good stuff starts in the middle. I struggled with the first 400 pages but once you hit a certain point, you start to get into it, can’t put it down. I think I finished the last 600 pages of the book in two days because I absolutely could not put it down, whereas I wanted nothing more than to throw the damn book at the wall as I read the first 400 pages. It gets infinitely better and,

    Regarding the slang…it wasn’t something that I was very familiar with and it confused me, as well as other members of the book club. We set out to create a glossary of the terms and attempted to define them. We used urban dictionary for a few of them (which means that people do use the slang, we might just be too damn old to know this) and we also confirmed other definitions with Adam Levin. It isn’t unbelievable, the slang nor Gurion’s dialog. Have you ever worked with extremely gifted children? It might seem far-fetched, but it isn’t. I can’t remember if you know this by the first 400 pages or not — I’m sure that you do — but if Gurion is the Messiah (like some people seem to believe that he is, and I think on some level Gurion does as well) then the dialog makes more sense.

    After completing The Instructions and looking at the book as a whole, there isn’t a damn thing that I would have cut out. Like DFW, Levin creates a world (and a book) where every bit of information is important to the overall story — cut some of it out and it wouldn’t make sense, it wouldn’t be a great story. I think that the first 400 pages of The Instructions are sort of like the first 188-200 pages of Infinite Jest — you have no idea what’s going on or how or what the connections to these characters are or mean, but once you get to the meat of the story it takes off in some of the most amazing spins and plot lines in fiction.

    See also: http://therumpus.net/2010/11/digesting-an-elephant-the-rumpus-book-club-reviews-the-instructions/

    http://therumpus.net/2010/11/the-rumpus-book-club-interviews-adam-levin/

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  2. Biblioklept · January 24, 2011

    Hi, bears, thanks for the comment.

    To clarify, I didn’t struggle with the slang or find it confusing, just awfully precious and increasingly irritating. I don’t need characters to be “realistic,” but I do think that characters should remain “real” to the world in which they are placed . . . which perhaps these kids are (i.e. “real” in the world of Aptakisic) — I just found that “reality” utterly contrived; a reality without truth.

    I’m no stranger to long or difficult fiction — indeed, one of the appeals of the book is its length — but after the first 8 chapters it’s hard to believe that it could be rewarding at all. In fact, the book that I read most of this weekend (after finally putting The Instructions down) was W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo; within a dozen pages I was happy to be in the middle of a great book again.

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    • Biblioklept · January 24, 2011

      Oh, and, I think it’s worth pointing out (as someone who taught high school for seven years) that *all* kids come up with slang — not just “gifted kids.” (That Levin’s “slang” should read as the miserably precocious ergot of an emotionally stunted boy who was always told he was “gifted” is another matter . . .)

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  3. narwhalparty · January 24, 2011

    Hm. I think you just helped me decide to let this one slide by. Judging by your synopsis, and the ever growing list of books I’m looking forward to reading, this one has probably fallen out of the queue. Thanks for helping me simplify!

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  4. Laura C. · January 24, 2011

    Thanks for the honest review. I’m still kind of stoked to read it though.

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  5. brooks williams · January 24, 2011

    Oh great, another book that I’ve literally got right here next to me that you hated. And this one is a goddamn doorstop. haha…

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    • Biblioklept · January 24, 2011

      Oh no! It sounds like I’ve become cranky, what with this review and the Shteyngart review. Seriously, though, I think I’ve only panned like, maybe a dozen books in the five years I’ve been doing this. I generally don’t like negative book reviews, so I pretty much reserve them for “special cases” — but, in all seriousness, I would give The Instructions a shot Brooks. Like I write in the review, I didn’t finish it, and others have claimed that “it gets better” so, who knows. The Shteyngart I would avoid like poison though.

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  6. Hank · January 24, 2011

    Are you familiar with Joshua Cohen’s “Witz”? Cohen reviewed “The Instructions” (negatively) a while back and the review was met with some controversy (at least in some corners) because it was thought there may be some conflict of interest, because as Cohen himself said:

    “Who better to review a 1,000-page Jewish book that comes out in the fall than the author of an 800-page Jewish book that came out in the spring? Adam Levin’s first novel, “The Instructions,” appears a summer after my own novel “Witz,” whose title translates to “joke,” though it’s no laughing matter: it’s about the Last Jew in the World. And did you hear the one about Chaim, who was stranded on a desert island? When the rescuers finally arrived they found he’d built two fully equipped synagogues out of palm trunks and homemade rope. Curious, they asked him, “Why two?” Chaim answered, “One I pray in, the other I’ll never step foot in.” In the spirit of that joke, consider one of our books the Jewish novel you’ll never begin and the other the Jewish novel you’ll never finish.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/books/review/JCohen-t.html

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    • Biblioklept · January 24, 2011

      Thanks for the link, Hank. I was aware of Cohen’s review, but, only having read the initial paragraph I guess I thought it was a positive one. I just read it and I really like his conclusion, simply, I suppose, because my own review’s conclusion seems to repeat it:

      “But Wallace, like God, and even like the mere mortals who wrote the Talmud, opted for multiple perspectives, whereas “The Instructions” remains univocal — it’s all Gurion’s voice — and it ultimately devolves not into commentaries and interpretive apparatuses but into a vague ending involving a fudged miracle and an ostensible kidnapping by the Mossad. This all makes for a very long joke: a setup that lacks a punch line.”

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