Digesting an Elephant–The Rumpus Book Club Reviews The Instructions

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What if Infinite Jest and Phillip Roth had a love child, a very angry love child…

Large enough to squash a Pekingese, Adam Levin’s The Instructions is staggeringly well-thought-out, bejeweled with references, hints and clues and is unquestionably daunting in both breadth and depth. For The Rumpus Book Club, these attributes make for an interesting dichotomy; lovable for some, impossible to love for others.

Divided into parts, The Instructions hilariously, violently and tenderly tackles the absurdities of Aptakisic Junior High, a microcosm, of course, for the larger world. Framed as scripture, The Instructions is attributed to Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee — potential messiah, age 10, and main character. He argues about nearly everything with everybody — including himself — in long, meandering pathways of language.  Gurion wields his own inventive vocabulary (see sidebar) as a weapon against “suck,” as deftly as Holden Caulfield railed against all acts of phoniness.

Gurion is billed as a “lover, fighter and scholar”, but some in the club had difficulty with Gurion’s precocity, and the blurred line between Levin’s and Gurion’s cleverness. Additionally troubling for some was the tendency for other characters who interact with Gurion to be infected with his verbosity. While this allows for the dialogue necessary to fuel the engine of The Instructions, this device works better with the members of Gurion’s inner circle, The Side of Damage, than, for example, with the school’s addlepated gym teacher.

It could be argued that everything and everyone in the world Levin has created for Gurion is a midrashic hallucination of Judaism’s analytical imperative to out-think the centuries of exegetists that have raised the intellectual stakes of religious knowledge. For some Torah scholars, interpretation is God, and the ability to argue an interpretation. The Instructions is, at its best, a fully-realized work of art about argument.

One of Gurion’s initial instructions is a how-to guide in making a do-it-yourself junior-high-school worthy weapon of mass destruction. The pennygun, Gurion’s invention and the means by which his Israelite followers reveal themselves, is basically a $2.00 slingshot. Slingshot sounds like (but is very different from) sling, which is the weapon David used to kill Goliath. This story is mentioned frequently in the book, particularly as the Gurionic War draws near. The second bit of symbolism has to do with the ammunition. Anti-Semites have a long tradition of using the penny not only as a rhetorical weapon, but also when thrown as a means to humiliate Jewish people. Though it’s never made explicit in The Instructions, Gurion could have chosen the penny as ammunition to literally and metaphorically combat this stereotype. With pennies and wingnuts, Gurion damages his enemies. When his shiksa moll and soulmate, June, introduces him to the idea of using a pen nib instead of a penny as ammunition a killing field is born in the school gymnasium.

Levin, solidly in maximilst camp of Proust, James and Wallace, only gives us four days in over a thousand pages; but those four days include first love, bloody revolution, an exodus of pre-teen Torah scholars, a close encounter with a smarmy pop celebrity, a marriage proposal, at least twenty new words for the OED, a spontaneous religious conversion, a miracle of Biblical proportions, a three minute phone call with a fictional Phillip Roth and the best poppy seed cookies in Chicago.

Content aside, The Instructions is not intended for the faint of heart. Although, the author is said to have written most of it standing up, the massive size makes it nearly impossible to read casually, in transit, or without a very comfortable chair.  In our book club alone, the novel has injured thumbs, bruised breasts and flared carpal tunnel. When left alone in a book bag with a pair of headphones, it snapped them in half. A book that can damage you = hardcore.

We, The Rumpus Book Club, were exhausted by The Instructions; but we were also exhilarated (what other book, after 825 flicks of the wrist, suddenly becomes a page turner?) and quietly proud of toting around such dense and densely rewarding fiction. What’s certain is we’ll need a palate cleanser via some lighter reading after Levin’s tome because we’ve just digested an elephant.

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Rayme Waters lives, reads and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area. She edited comments from over twenty Rumpus Book Club members to create this review.

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