The Instructions

Adam Levin’s dark, funny, and deeply provocative firstnovel, The Instructions, comprisesthe scriptures of one Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, an impossibly articulate ten-yearold who might or might not be the messiah. When I say “impossibly,” Ido mean impossibly, but Gurion is no cutesy child hero. He shares with OskarSchell—the young, tambourine-playing pacifist vegan of Jonathan Safran Foer’sExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close—a fixation on the horrors of the past, and like Schell’s his story is propelledby a series of unlikely, seemingly symbolic coincidences. Here, though, thereis no redemption, only confusion and violence—an indictment of tribementality, and of the concept of being “chosen.”

Gurion’s scholarly erudition is so staggering, somonumentally over-the-top, that the accusation of its implausibility isembedded in the book itself. A footnote excerpts a letter from Philip Roth (hisfictional counterpart, anyway), who misreads fan mail from Gurion as an adult’s”terrifically cruel and on point” mimicry of “recent so-calledJewish wunderkind authors.” Roth urges him to stop “writing from theunconvincing POV of a boy-genius whose name suggests a messianic fate” andinstead to adopt the more realistic perspective of a man remembering hischildhood “as a time when he, like so many of us, suspected that he wasthe messiah.”

Even at five years old, we are told, the boy askedscriptural questions so complex that his mentor, a rabbinical scholar, wasmoved to transcribe their conversations. No doubt the allegorical touchstone is different for Jewish readers, butfor this fundamentalist-raised gentile the obvious echo is of Jesus’ three-daydebate, at age twelve, that left Jerusalem’stemple elders astonished. (Luke 2:46-47) At times, like the fictional Roth, I struggled withGurion’s voice—with the high diction, and the essaylets and other postmodernflourishes—but Levin has an uncanny facility for blending sympathy andsatire, for making us care about his charming but dubious hero and for infusinglife into this alternate, slightly fantastical reality that’s very much likeour own. The Instructions recallsboth the real Philip Roth’s The PlotAgainst America, in which aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer CharlesLindberg defeats FDR on an isolationist platform and winds up in the WhiteHouse, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, in which members of the Churchof Jesus Christ, Kidnapped are required to “spend every waking hour”trying to find their savior, who was “kidnapped by the Forces of Evil”at the second coming. And, like Roth’s and Vonnegut’s, Levin’s flights of fancyare placed in service of a deadly serious project. Not only is he, as herecently told The Chicago Tribune, having “aconversation with Jewish literature,” he’s illustrating, in a whollyoriginal way, exactly what sort of catastrophe results when fervent religious convictionmeets brute force. 

Gurion may be a scholar, but he’s also a thug, at leastaccording to his record. He’s been kicked out of three schools, for starters. Thefirst, the ultra-orthodox Schechter, booted him for throwing a stapler at arabbi who said “the all-time snakiest thing anyone had ever said to me”:that Gurion could not be the messiah, because “‘The messiah will be a Jew.'””I was half lost-tribe,” Gurion explains. “You couldn’t see itin my skin unless you were trying, but my mother’s parents were from Ethiopiaand a few Ashkenazis still thought that meant I wasn’t an Israelite.” NorthsideHebrew Day expelled him for distributing a pamphlet to teach fellow studentshow to make a pennygun—a sort of sling shot—from a balloon, a penny, andthe sawed-off top of a soda bottle. The instructions, inspired by an attackGurion witnessed on a synagogue, required recipients to pass them along, insecret, to other Israelites (Gurion rejects the word “Jews”), so thatthey would never again “cower amidst the masses of the Roman and Canaanitechildren.” Next Gurion was assignedto the lock-down program at Martin Luther King Middle School, where helasted four days before he was accused, wrongly, of beating a boy with a cinderblock.

Now enrolled at Aptakisic Junior High, Gurion has beenplaced under all-day surveillance with the school’s other most dangerous kids,in “The Cage.” Cut off from his fellow Israelite scholars, Gurion isdrawn to kids who are, as he puts it, damaged. Meeting Eliyahu of Brooklyn, aHasidic new arrival at AptakisicI—who is both damaged and an Israelite—causesGurion to reflect that “Everyone I liked who wasn’t damaged was a scholar.Rather, everyone I liked who wasn’t a scholar was damaged. Or maybe the firstway. The stress kept shifting.” Hisscriptures  are primarily for “allthe Israelites,” but also for “anyone who’s on the side of damage.” In his heart of hearts, Gurion knows he can’tlead both the chosen and the damaged, but as a member of both groups he refusesto choose.

The pressure that refusal comes under is made more explicitby the fact that those who shape Gurion’s messianic project most are not infact Israelites. He learns how to write scripture from the novelist, motelowner, and ex-lawyer Flowers, who forbids Gurion “to portray him as a wiseold black man who gave life-lessons to an Israelite boy.” ‘”I think you bestnot harp on about being the messiah,”‘ Flowers tells him. ‘”[L]eak itin slowly while you’re hooking everyone, and then Blast!”‘

When Gurion falls in love with a troubled but talentedred-haired girl, he’s convinced she’s Jewish even after his mother pronouncesher name—Eliza June Watermark—”the single most goyishe” she’s ever heard. “Hashem would never fall me inlove with someone who wasn’t an Israelite,” he explains. When June revealsthe next day that she’s a Unitarian, Gurion is distraught and rageful, butdecides, partly on the strength of their matching birthmarks that are “anabbreviation of Adonai’s best written name,” to convert her; since Adonaineither yells “No” nor paralyzes him during the impromptu ceremony,Gurion pronounces June an Israelite.

And then there’s Gurion’s best friend, Benji. Although he isn’t an Israelite either, Gurionincludes him in the dissemination of the contraband pennygun-making documents. ButBenji is instructed to destroy the pamphlet rather than join in its viralspread. “‘Mine says if I don’t burn it we’re enemies,'” Benji says,when he encounters the original. “‘Theirs say, strangers, please spreadthis to other strangers.'” “Youwant me to apologize?” Gurion says.”Cause you’re not an Israelite? Because I am?”  

Gurion’s dilemma—the impossibility of protecting thedowntrodden while leading God’s chosen people—is tied up in the words of theIsraelite prophets, in specifically Jewish tropes of identity. And it is the specificity of his tangleddoctrinal illogic that makes him so sympathetic and compelling. But in ourfanaticism-addled world, the implications of his story’s tragic arc resonatemuch further. To carve out any group forsalvation is to condemn everyone outside it to damnation of one kind oranother.

Inevitably, given this debut novel’s range, energy, andsprawl, pre-publication quotes compare Adam Levin to David Foster Wallace. And in its footnotes and asides, its thoroughgoingbut wholly approachable intellectualism, and its relentless self-awareness, The Instructions really does recall Infinite Jest. Other forbears—Roth,Salinger, Cervantes, and The Book ofJonah (“the most deadpan comedy ever written”)—are explicitlyevoked by Gurion himself.

But the ability to engender true sympathy in a reader forthe schemes of a narcissist is a very particular and rare sort of talent. Thereis, of course, Humbert Humbert, whose criminal seduction of Lolita Nabokovsomehow enlists his reader in rooting for. And the antihero of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, fascinates as much ashe repels when he takes his first love hostage.  As I mull over The Instructions, though, my mind keepsreturning—again I reveal my goyisheframe of reference—to John Milton’s Satan, the most compelling figure of Paradise Lost. And Ithink of the words of an aging country squire (quoted by Philip Pullman in anintroduction to the poem), who wrote, transfixed by the fallen archangel’ssaga, “I know not what the outcomemay be, but this Lucifer is a damned fine fellow, and I hope he may win!”


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