Book Club Member John Brown reviews The Instructions
The Instructions is this month’s Rumpus Book Club selection. Published by McSweeney’s the book is 1,024 pages. John Brown was probably the first member of the book club to finish it.
The Instructions is one hell of a gamble. It’s a thousand pages written in the voice of a 10-year old Israelite (not Jewish) scholar prodigy, who may or may not be the messiah. And it’s Adam Levin’s first novel. Supposedly translated from English into Hebrew into English again with perfect correspondence between the original and the double translation, The Instructions is the “scripture” written by Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, a seventh grader at Aptakisic Junior High.
The Instructions is hyper self-aware. It narrates its own creation. It utilizes false paratextual elements such as a publisher’s disclaimer. It sometimes cross-references by page number. But these elements are not surprising in an era where drawing attention to artifice is no longer innovative in itself. That isn’t to say The Instructions doesn’t have innovative elements. For example, Levin uses e-mail replies to sneak in a bit of anti-chronological narration and creates fun text diagrams that are useful for mapping the physical spaces of the novel, such as “the Cage,” the lockdown program for behavioral disorders at Aptakisic.
More than these techniques, I was surprised by the constant and explicit effort of the narrator to manipulate interpretation. Gurion routinely addresses the “scholars” who are the supposed intended audience (sometimes, but not always in footnotes), pre-empting interpretations or responding to hypothetical rhetorical challenges. The Instructions might contain the most fully developed discourses on interpretation within a novel. The main character analyzes and re-analyzes every text that comes before him, whether it’s the Torah or a note from his ex-girlfriend or a therapist’s evaluation or a dream. The most important lesson from these discourses is that meaning is provisional. In one instance, Gurion literally reassigns the meaning of a symbol. A blank white stripe, which replaced an ichthys on a scarf, is recast from meaning nothing to meaning “if not Christ, then nothing.” Gurion turns what is intended to be a null signifier—something with no meaning—into a symbol of exactly that which it was meant to efface. On the brink of the story’s climax, Gurion takes a breather to ponder the process of reading, including the conflicting desires to reach the next plot point and catch everything in between. In another case, Gurion rebukes one of his followers from writing the signature tag of their organization in the shape of a cross by saying, “It signifies wrong.”
The Instructions draws heavily from Jewish tradition. Gurion mimics the style of Hebrew scripture, and he uses titles that make direct parallels (e.g. “Story of Stories”). However, the relationship to scripture is much deeper, as it undergirds the symbolic structure of the novel. Gurion possesses many messianic markers (his birthmarks, his scholarly ability, his geneology), and in that respect The Instructions resembles the Gospel of Matthew, which piles high fulfilled prophecies. But The Instructions pre-empts such naïve interpretation by including a discussion of messianic prophecy which concludes that any prophecy can be reinterpreted in retrospect (also providing another example of this book’s sophisticated treatment of interpretation). Readers unfamiliar with scripture may find the exegetical sections tedious, but they are essential, especially the discussion of Abraham’s sacrifice. Levin is meticulous and does not shy away from literacy. Nothing is off-limits from allusion or extended discussion, from Borges to Roth to Salinger. I thought I had caught an anachronism when Obama came up, until I realized that in the timeline of the novel, he was just elected as the junior Senator from Illinois, and the story takes place in suburban Chicago.
Containing the most touching description of a first kiss I’ve ever read, hilarious moments when “robots” (teachers and administration) are outwitted by an impossibly intelligent Gurion, and a self-effacing “letter” from Philip Roth criticizing a writer who would pretend to be a gradeschooler, The Instructions is a whipsmart and heartbreaking novel, a challenge of length and depth that will hopefully thrive because it is a genuinely entertaining read.
John Brown’s blog, Lines and Circles