Book review: The Instructions

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THE timing of the UK publication of Adam Levin’s mammoth, marvellous novel could not be more apposite.

After the epigraph and a disclaimer from the fictional publishers, the reader hears the voice of Gurion Ben-Judah Maccabee, a ten-year-old terrorist and, in his own words, potential Messiah: “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”.

As the column inches about disaffection, violence and sick societies turn into column furlongs, Levin is the ideal guide to this estranged world.

The Instructions may seem daunting, at more than 1,000 pages, but it reads remarkably swiftly, its hectic paragraphs almost tumbling over each other in enthusiasm. The action takes place over a few days, and is entirely narrated by Gurion, who has been put in “the Cage”, a lock-down unit for children with behavioural problems in Aptakisic Junior High School.

Like Oskar Matzerath in The Tin Drum or Oskar Schell in Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, Gurion is a preternaturally gifted child; a scholar of the Torah, Talmud and the Midrash, trained in combat by his Israeli Defence Forces mother and in logic and rhetoric by his civil rights lawyer father. From the outset the reader knows that two things will happen. Gurion will be responsible for some kind of atrocity at the school, and some kind of miracle.

The novel’s unflagging momentum comes from this prescience, and Levin manages in the final pages to conjure an ambiguous, extremely affecting surprise ending that does the opposite of neatly tying up the narrative strands. The route to “the Damage Proper” and “the 11/17 Miracle” takes in number of narrative elements: Gurion falls in love with Eliza June Watermark, and is conflicted over how his God could allow him to love a goy; his father’s defence of a neo-Nazi’s right to free speech reaches a ruling; Gurion’s classmates in the Cage become more frustrated with the dictatorial teacher Mr Botha; and the school is due to have a special assembly where their local celebrity, the ghastly Boystar, is due to sing from his new album in a duet with Scott Mookus, Gurion’s friend with “Williams Cocktail Party Syndrome”.

Levin’s prose is as hyperactive as his protagonist. Gurion has a winning combination of abstruse theology (he insists on being called an Israelite rather than a Jew, and has an obsession with the Judges) and schoolyard slang. There is a great deal of inventiveness in this idiolect: people are “dentists” (from rhyming dental with mental) and “bancers” (bad dancers, I think).

There is a moment of superb insolence when Levin has Gurion write a letter to Philip Roth, and indeed introduces Roth as a character by the end of the novel.

But despite being hysterically funny and giddyingly imagined, this is a novel of serious intent. The Instructions examines the general alienation of youth and the specific persistence of anti-Semitism. It is no small achievement to create a book where the reader will not just sympathise with the child responsible for terrible deeds, but actively hope for his “damage” to come about.

The Instructions makes Lindsay Anderson’s film If seem positively coy. Comparisons have already been made between Adam Levin and the late David Foster Wallace, and although there is a common commitment to experimental prose, his work more closely resembles that of Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem. Like them, Levin is both fascinated by violence and fascinating about it.

Edinburgh International Book Festival, Saturday, 8.30pm