Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review: The Instructions, by Adam Levin

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2010

It's about: Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, age 10, believes himself to possibly be his generation's potential Messiah. The Instructions is the book of scripture he has written for his fellow Israelites, setting the record straight about the events of November 17, 2006: The Damage Proper, 11/17 Miracle, and Gurionic War. By 2013, the year Gurion writes The Instructions, November 17th has beome a new Jewish holiday commemorating those events.

Aside from a bit of backstory, the action in this 1,000+ pager only spans four days. So, as you can imagine, we get to know Gurion and his world extremely well.

I thought: If you follow The Blue Bookcase very closely, you've probably already seen my mentions of The Instructions here and here. I'm happy to report that I love this book just as much now that I've finished it. It's totally unlike any book I've ever read. I am in awe of Adam Levin. And I may be even more in awe of Gurion Maccabee.

Gurion is observant and perceptive, charismatic, hyperactive, delusional, and extremely precocious. The idea that he's only ten years old is pretty unbelievable. Personally, I don't have a problem with that- I like reading from the boy-genius P.O.V. (Ender's Game, Exley, Curious Incident) and I have a true gift for suspending my disbelief. Adam Levin cheekily addresses the issue of Gurion's age with a letter from Philip Roth, Gurion's favorite author. Roth responds to a fan letter from Gurion: "Your insistence that you are a grade-schooler- despite being mildly entertaining at first- quickly grew... tiresome." And "You don't need this conceit that you're a nine-year-old."

And OH, the cleverness. The Instructions is packed with references to pop culture, Jewish mysticism, Orthodox life, and Judaica in general. When I first started reading it, I found myself stopping on almost every page to look up some new word, person, or idea. But what I loved most were the languages- Hebrew, Yiddish, the students' stylized slang, and the Australian accent of one character named Botha. The slang (especially using "stealth" and "suck" as adjectives) started to seep into my thoughts, along with some Yiddish. Here's an example of the idiosyncratic dialogue: "...if you wanna take care of the guy who hurt our friend Shpritzy, that's cool, but if you get your clauses spliced while you're trying, I'll gladly indent your enemies. Count on it."
And here's what I mean about the accent: "Quoydanawnsinz" for "Quiet the nonsense" and "Moinda chase daddles, Makebee" for "Mind the cheese doodles, Maccabee." Haha! I'm not usually a big fan of the phonetic accent-writing thing (what's the real term for it?) but I kept reading Botha's lines aloud and giggling at how genuinely Australian I sounded. Brilliant! But then there's another character who is supposed to be from Pittsburgh, and his didn't work. I felt confused and uncomfortable with his dialogue, maybe because I don't have a good handle on what a Pittsburgh accent sounds like.

So if this book is so great, you're wondering, why did it take five weeks to read? Well, see, I do this thing with books I really, really like. I draw them out forever because I know I'll be sad when they end. So don't take my slow reading as evidence that The Instructions is difficult or dense. It's not. Sure, Gurion's adolescent inner monologue and incessant religious musings get tiresome; he leaves no thought unthunk. But still I thought the novel as a whole had great forward momentum.

Verdict: Make a nice wide space on the shelf for this chubnik!

Reading Recommendations: Check this one out if you liked Lord of the Flies and Fight Club. If you're interested in the child messiah complex idea, I'd recommend Nicole Krauss' The History of Love.
Also, if you like fictional slang, superserious adolescents, and stylized dialogue, watch the movie Brick.
And if you want to read another review of The Instructions before you decide to read it (we are talking about a bit of a commitment with this book), there's a great one over at The New Dork Review of Books.


Favorite excerpts: First, some scripture:
"There is damage. There was always damage and there will be more damage, but not always. Were there always to be more damage, damage would be an aspect of perfection. We would all be angels, one-legged and faceless, seething with endless, hopeless praise.
Bless Adonai for making us better than angels. Blessed is Adonai for making us human."

And a couple from the best first kiss scene I have ever read:

"I couldn't tell the difference between the movements of her mouth and the movements of mine. I couldn't separate June from Gurion. It was like being in the first and third person at the same time, the kiss not just something we were doing, but something that was happening to us.
I thought: This is not us kissing; this kiss is ussing."

"There were freckles on her eyelids so I kissed the freckles on her eyelids, and while kissing on her eyelids I pushed her hood back and smelled her hair. It did smell sweet, though not as brightly as strawberries, not as red-and-greenly. It was a better, lazier kind of sweet than strawberries and it seemed to be made of smoke. If a hammock swaying in slomo between telephone poles in the poppyfield from The Wizard of Oz was a smell, that would be the smell of June's hair."

What I'm reading next: Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks