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.