The Rumpus Book Club talks with Adam Levin about The Instructions, Bar Mitzvahs, thinking you’re the Messiah, and what it’s like to publish a 1,000+ page book.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.
Stephen Elliott: You spent nine years on this monster of a first book. What changes, when you go from working on a 1,000 page book to publishing it?
Adam Levin: It feels good. A big relief. Also kinda celebratory
Patty: Is it true that you worked on it for two years standing up, due to a broken back?
Levin: No broken back — pinched nerve back.
Kevin: Adam, can you tell us about the epigraph? I read The Third Policeman a few years ago — it’s crazy. Besides the correlation between De Selby’s pseudoscience and Gurion’s messianic beliefs, was there another reason you chose it?
Levin: You hit the nail on the head. As for any other reason, yeah: because it suggests that the book is not just, like, “a Jewish novel,” i.e. O’brien = not a Jew.
Betsy: There are different justifications for violence in the book and I’m still not clear on Gurion’s. Josh Berman is into it so he can incite fear. He says so. Gurion’s seems tied to protecting the tribe rather than to any sort of redemption.
Levin: If I could sum up G’s justification for anything in this forum, then it wouldn’t have taken me 1,000 pages to write is the short answer.
Patty: Honestly re: the violence — I think Gurion was a bit of a p****** that had others do his dirty work and never really believed in himself as a badass.
Levin: Really? You think he was Ponyhead? I don’t think Gurion was a pussy at all, but that’s an interesting read.
S.X. Rosenstock: I’m not understanding the Gurion as pussy comment. He made me want to defend every hair on every Jewish head at any cost. It was weird to walk around feeling like that. I read Yedhuda Amichai and Rabin speeches to calm down
Levin: I’m glad to hear of these powerful emotions toward the characters. Seriously. That’s the best kinda stuff I could hear.
Neal: Well, it’s hard not to hate Botha. One of the most hateable characters I’ve ever read, and I mean that as a compliment.
Kristy: Grrr Botha. I was so glad he got his in the end!
S.X. Rosenstock: Did we discuss Botha as Aussie?
Levin: Botha as an Aussie — talk to me.
David Gwilliam: Good question. I always felt that he was Aussie just so that his diction could be so twisted.
Levin: Botha became an Aussie because the first scene I wrote with him was an early version of the first Lunch where Australia gets called a prison — I wanted them to say something kinda fucked up to him, and talking trash on his homeland (true though that trash may be) seemed right.
Sonia: Botha as Aussie: rape/ripe?
Levin: Rape = ripe, yep. That was discussed with Eli [Horowitz, Editor] a little. Bad taste?
Neal: Bad taste in the best way.
Steve Kirschner: Adam, I was struck by how tragic the book was in the end — I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who isn’t finished — but should we look at Gurion as hero, anti-hero or something else entirely — and if the latter, then what?
Levin: That’s the kinda question I’d rather have you asking than have me answering, I think … i.e., it’s a good question with no simple answer.
Stephen Elliott: How did you end up at McSweeney’s?
Levin: I ended up at McSweeney’s because I’d worked with Eli on a couple stories for the Quarterly and saw he was a genius and wanted to work with him on the most important thing I’d ever done.
Matt: I read somewhere that Chris Adrian’s Children’s Hospital was a very, very long one, too … but McSweeney’s cut it down a ton before publishing … Was there any discussion of major excisions for TI? Or were they pretty supportive from the start about it being the biggest book ever?
Patty: So fess up on the length — did it really take that long to get there and/or there were no details you could part with, or you were shooting for some sort of 1,000-page monster?
Levin: I was not shooting for anything number-wise. There was some cutting, but also some adding. Very supportive overall.
Patty: What the hell was with the “I might be” when asked if Gurion was the Messiah … all the way through the book! I thought he would have declared that he was at some point, to reinforce his position in the school, etc.
Betsy: Maybe Gurion was dodging like Jesus does when the Pharisees ask him if he’s the Messiah? Doesn’t he say the equivalent of “that’s for me to know and for you to find out”?
Levin: I think Gurion keeps saying he “might be” the Messiah because he really believes that’s the case. It’s a maybe, no more no less … well maybe a little more, a hopeful maybe … a “maybe-plus,” as a friend of mine likes to say.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Adam, from one Catholic kid who used to think he might be the second coming to one Jewish kid who (you’ve mentioned in interviews) thought he might be the Messiah, how seriously did you believe and when did you figure out that maybe it wasn’t going to play out?
Bill: I don’t think anyone specifically said that neither of you are a Messiah.
Levin: I quit believing I might be the Messiah at age 13, I think. Isaac?
Steve Kirschner: Bar Mitzvahs will do that to you, Adam …
S.X. Rosenstock: No messianism at 13? Very bad bar mitzvah? Or very, very good?
Lester: I never thought I was going to be the Messiah, but my mom and I both thought I was going to be one of “the two witnesses” of the end times, as revealed in Revelations.
Levin: It was girls more than bar-mitzvahs, but the two are certainly kinda linked.
Isaac Fitzgerald: I was raised around the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, MA, because my ma worked there … around 8 she stopped and I lost interest (not being around the holy fanfare 24/7). What about the school? I spent some time in “special learning” units, etc. Your depiction of “The Cage” seemed like it might have come from experience.
Levin: Special learning units: I was never in one. I think they’re pretty bad news though — at least the lockdown kind. That said, I don’t think schools know what to do with some of the rougher kids a lot of the time.
Kristy: I felt connected to the characters simply because I felt so unconnected to the religious stuff (not because of the writing, but because I am not religious and have no background knowledge) and I LOVED the first kiss scene. Gurion and June’s relationship was beautifully written. Damn, I’m gushing now … sorry.
Levin: You all are really making me kinda weepy.
Ron Desormie: Any comments on the Josh Cohen mess in NYT?
Rayme: We have been talking a lot about the NYT review. Have you read it?
Levin: Not much to say about that. I guess, you know, people get frustrated or something.
Jack W: Adam, do you think 1) Roth, 2) You, is/are bad for the Jews?
Levin: No one’s bad for the Jews, I don’t think. Well, not no one — but no Jewish writer.
Bobby: Does Philip Roth know about the book (or is Philip Roth the kind of guy who no longer knows about new and exciting books)?
Levin: Philip Roth probably knows about the book — it was sent to him, along with a gushy letter. But, alas. Roth has not responded.
Betsy: Can we get a comment on “bancer” and maybe “dental”? Cohen’s review said you use “dental” for mental but that’s too easy. Someone said you said dental means suck, but suck means suck so what does dental mean?
Levin: Dental does not fuckin’ mean mental.
Jack W: With regard to “dental,” etc. … was there any inspiration gleaned from the Anti-Dentite Seinfeld episode, where the dentist converts to Judaism purportedly for the jokes? I watched that episode probably ten times trying to connect it while reading TI a la Dark Side of the Moon and Wizard of Oz.
Levin: Anti-dentite! That was a good one — maybe. Not knowingly, though.
Betsy: How’d you come up with the idea for the personality of Gurion’s parents? I loved them both in all their intelligent wonderful imperfection.
Patty: I kind of felt like Gurion had some “living up to ” to do for his mom, but got the sense he would have preferred to be like his dad.
Levin: I think he kinda wanted to impress the one by being like the other.
Neal: Did you purposefully underplay the racial component? It was there, but it was never highlighted, and I often forgot that Gurion wasn’t white. It seems that Gurion chose one tribe while rejecting another, or that he felt he had to reject one tribe in order to be embraced by another.
Levin: Yes, deliberately underplayed because of option a.
Neal: The section about what happened to Eliyahu’s parents was really moving to me. I read it two or three times when I came across it. He’s a character I wish we would have seen more of, though what we did see was great.
Steve Kirschner: I agree about the powerfulness of the scene where Eliyahu’s parents die. Did his father send him away knowing there was a bomber, do you think, and wanting to save his son?
Levin: No — his father didn’t know, but maybe Eliyahu senses that he might’ve somehow.
Rubi: I loved Gurion and wanted to protect him. But I liked many other characters much more. Nakamook, Eliyahu, others, seemed purer, less contradictory than Gurion. Gurion’s attempts to make his reality (June, Benji, his father) conform to his ideology (religion, his mother, Israelites) and support his ego (Messiah?) made liking him a complicated proposition.
Rayme: Why was Gurion so rigid in not letting Nakamook spread the word of the pennygun? That tidbit turned me against Gurion.
Levin: I think he was rigid because he really did believe the gun was just for the Israelites at the time he gave Benji the instructions.
Neal: It was interesting that Benji took it as an insult rather than a compliment that he trusted him enough to be the only gentile to receive the instructions.
Levin: Gurion did not know how it would hurt Benji — he really did think Benji should’ve been flattered that an exception had been made for him.
Lester: But Benji thought he was the only *person* to receive the instructions.
Steve Kirschner: Benji gave Gurion this long talk about loyalty trumping friendship, but didn’t seem to realize that G’s “loyalty” was to the Israelites.
Neal: True, Lester. Benji went from being the most special to less special than every Israelite out there.
Rayme: Then why did he give Benji the gun at all? Benji had his fuckin’ back, you know. Why would he see June as an instant conversion and not Benji?
S.X. Rosenstock: Gurion is so sure since he wants her, and all his wanting must be by nature Jewish, that she is a Jew: so well-presented amazing!
Neal: Wishful thinking is a powerful thing.
Levin: Especially Gurion’s wishful thinking.
Rayme: So are you saying even the potential Messiah is thinking only with penis? Dental to the max.
Levin: I don’t think he’s thinking with his penis. I think he’s a really romantic kid … which might = he thinks with his penis.
Patty: It’s true, in an instant Gurion started to make concessions once he met and fell in love with June.
Neal: I loved that romantic aspect of it. I also loved June’s character in general.
Jenna: We declared Gurion’s and June’s first kiss to be the best in literature — so hilarious and sweet.
David Gwilliam: I was afraid at first that June was gonna be that girl, that manic pixie dream girl, but I thought she turned out rather more complex.
Levin: Manic pixie dream girl was a danger I was trying to dodge. One Bjork is enough!
Kevin: Yeah, June Watermark > Ramona Flowers.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Yeah, June wasn’t just Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State.
David Gwilliam: Isaac: wait, that was a character? *ZING*
Levin: Back off the Portman, guys!
S.X. Rosenstock: The take-down of Nakamook is agony and Gurion’s indifference to his feelings freaked out so many book club members.
R.Rafferty: Agreed … What do you guys make of Gurion’s seeming indifference to Nakamook’s takedown?
Steve Kirschner: He wasn’t indifferent! He says he hasn’t been happy about anything since that happened — quite a confession for G to make!
Levin: Yeah, I don’t think Gurion’s indifferent to Nakamook’s feelings — I think he’s in a serious bunch of binds, and he’s doing his best. Which is not to say it’s warm-feely.
Lester: I think the depth of analysis Gurion devotes to Nakamook = he’s far from indifferent
Levin: I think that Gurion has a lot more room to fuck up than those other characters. Also, he’s DESCRIBING those other characters, so any admiration a reader has for them is coming via him — he’s pointing his finger at what to love.
The friendships between Gurion, Nakamook, Vincie, and Eliyahu were pretty central concerns for me.
Kristy: I felt like the entire novel was one big crescendo. Every page I turned the story got a little louder. I could barely hear by the end …
Levin: That’s killer. That’s what I wanted.
Linda: We had some questions about the Shovers early on. Were they meant to be representative of any particular group?
Levin: I’m finding that you all are saying all this smart stuff and I’d like to know what YOUR take on the Shovers was. Unless that’s not cool, or dereliction of chatroom duty, etc.
David Gwilliam: They’re the Jews at Mount Sinai!
Neal: I saw the Shovers as an illustration of the interplay between the secular and the religious — the relationship between church and state. But I could be way off base on that.
Levin: I like that. I think that’s part of it.
Josh: I agree with David. The Jews at Mt. Sinai. That’s what I picked up at least, at the end.
Bobo: I thought the Shovers were half-breeds of a sort — wanting to be cool but never being able to get there … outsiders — maybe even unwitting part of arrangement.
Jack: Adam, did Columbine influence the work at all (besides its mention in the novel)? I mean either the event or the book by Dave Cullen (excellent, by the way). Some of the scenes at the end, especially the stand-off, put me back into those moments I saw on the TV in ’99 or that I read in Cullen’s book this summer. Only your writing was more of an in-the-midst P.O.V. that made it both chilling and eye-opening.
Kristy: Jack!! Been wanting to know that, too. The Klebold references tipped me off early to the ending.
Levin: Never read Cullen … I think the way Columbine affected the book, though, was in that Gurion and the others had grown up in a world where Columbine was kinda normal.
Linda: That can’t ever be “normal.”
Isaac Fitzgerald: But students growing up in today’s world have seen it happen again and again. Colorado, Virginia, etc.
Matt: So there’s a blurb from George Saunders on the book … Did you work on this thing while at Syracuse? If so, what were people’s reactions like in the beginning? Did anyone think you were crazy?
Levin: I did work on it at Syracuse as my thesis, with George, but I didn’t show it in workshop at all –that was all stories … I did read from it a couple times and the reactions were really positive, as was the reaction from my good pal and fellow writer Christian Tebordo, which really did a lot toward helping me keep at it.
Patty: Are you working on a next book, Adam? Where do you want to go from here?
Levin: Plans are: edit collection of stories, write short novel.
Neal: I really enjoyed the “Story of Stories” section. Was that always part of The Instructions, or did it start as a short story that kind of got folded in? It seemed like it could have almost been a stand-alone piece and work really well with a few changes.
Levin: It was always part of The Instructions, but it was definitely the first big “document” in the book –the first I wrote that wasn’t a detention assignment. Writing it changed how I thought about the book.
Jenna: I loved the coda — and the entire section on reading and rereading (around page 1,000). Your discussion of the ambiguity of Catcher in the Rye kind of … warned me that there would be questions. There will always be questions.
The coda read to me like it was relating all of the rumors floating around in the aftermath. What do you think Gurion would grow up to do?
Levin: That’s another one of those questions that I’d rather you be asking than I be answering.
This interview was edited by Book Club member Rayme Waters.