A Review of Adam Levin’s The Instructions

Burke Hilsabeck

McSweeney’s: San Francisco, CA, 2010. 1030 pages. $29.00.

The Instructions, Adam Levin’s first novel, invites estimations of size. It weighs three pounds. After choosing it for the book club of the website The Rumpus, Stephen Elliot described the book as taller than a can of beer. (Not quite true.) A recent dinner guest of mine called it “bigger than a Arkansas barstool.” (Very much not true.) Let’s put it this way. If my bookshelf were arranged by weight, it would sit somewhere between John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged. (True.)

The obvious point of comparison for this book is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Both novels tell the tale of a child prodigy, and both do so by means of tortuous sentences of intellection. Like Wallace, Levin has taken the sentence-unit of Henry James, with its intestinal divagations, and moved it right into the nervous system. The Instructions reads like the insides of someone’s brain. It’s composed of flashy, synaptic connections; outlandish, funny, sophistical thoughts; and ounces and ounces of gray matter.

The Instructions purports to be the sacred text of Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, a twelve-year-old Chicagoan of premature pubescence who fancies himself the Messiah. Its title page instructs the reader that the text before him has been “translated and re-translated from the Hebrew and the English” by two of Gurion’s school friends, both of whom feature prominently in the narrative, a narrative that also happens to represent four days in Gurion’s wild, suburban, rabbinical life.

One gathers from this description a sense of The Instructions’ infinite recursivity, and it is on this recursivity that the book runs, like a circus of clowns doing impressions of themselves. This trait even finds its way into the book’s typesetting, part of which recalls the pattern poem. But forget George Herbert’s angel wings—Levin decorates his novel with text-images of middle school basketball courts, a welcome mat, and charts that illustrate the power of something called “underdog armies.” The effect is to destroy one’s sense of absorption and to throw attention onto the flat, physical page.

In his review in the New York Times, Joshua Cohen was at pains to criticize this aspect of the novel, which, in language that recalled Bosley Crowther, that most forgettable of Times arts critics, he referred to as “strange doodled maps that only distract.” Cohen has in mind the fact that Levin’s typographic sketches are of no importance to the book’s narrative. And this is undoubtedly true. So let me say this: If you come to The Instructions looking for a thousand pages of burnished narrative, you will be disappointed. The strengths of Levin’s novel lie in something else—its willingness to wander and free-associate and play ten-page digressions solely for their comedy. It’s a book of attractions, a private circus. It is anarchy not satire, more Tristram Shandy than Decline and Fall.

The novel has filmic undercurrents too. Gurion makes early reference to the famous boxing match in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, and true to The Instructions’ intense self-awareness, the comparison of that gag to Gurion’s scriptures is apt. But it’s not Chaplin’s feature work, with its well-wound stories and dance hall-honed texture, that reminds one of this book. Length aside, what comes to mind are the anarchic shorts of Mack Sennett, with their violent, parodic instinct and their willingness to forgo story for a few big explosions.

In 1915, Sennett managed to build something he called the “Cyclorama,” what one historian describes as “an enormous revolving drum measuring 109 feet in diameter and 25 feet in height, driven by three separate engines and capable of speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.” The huge cylinder served the purpose of creating film panoramas and machine-powered slapstick. It’s also a nice analog for The Instructions, with its circular digressions, electric intensity, and appreciable violence. All of which is to say, this book is comic to its core. And comedy, at least of this variety, is marked by just this excess, what Gurion calls “chair scoots” and “eyelid flips.”

Whether literary or filmic, comedy often has a fraught relationship with narrative. Certain comic novels stretch themselves tautly over strong narrative frames. Many have in their hearts an intense desire to break down these frames, borrowing the mask of narrative while steadfastly refusing the order it represents. The Instructions is a thousand pages of such desire. Thank god it’s so funny.

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