Kyle's Reviews > The Instructions

The Instructions by Adam Levin
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Sep 08, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, gargantuan, jewish, mcsweeneys

One of the first things I noticed in The Instructions was that there were no quotation marks around what the protagonist Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee says. Not his silent thoughts, not his imaginings, but every actual line he speaks. All the other characters have quotes around their lines, so it's not a comprehensive affectation à la Charles Frazier or Cormac McCarthy. The way Levin expresses speech makes a deliberate distinction between Gurion and everyone else in the world.

I'm not sure if this reflects holier-than-thou arrogance on the character's part (Gurion thinks, as a narrator, that his speech might as well be narration) or if it's just a quirk of the supposed book-within-the-book's genesis as a holy scripture. And I don't know whether to credit it to Levin or to one of his editors. But it might be one of the strongest peculiarities in a peculiarly amazing novel.

The Instructions follows Gurion, a hard-as-nails child-messiah, as he wages holy war against the oppression of, among other targets, his school's disciplinary lockdown program. It lasts 1000 pages and five days. Gurion is a biracial Jew (though, for all intents and purposes, he wholly ignores his supposed racial identity; and he makes a deep point of distinguishing the more solid, Biblically legitimate term of "Israelite" from the cloudier, more equivocal "Jew"). He's ten years old and attending middle school in a quiet Chicago suburb.

Previously kicked out of several Jewish day schools, Gurion has made a funny kind of home at Aptakisic Junior High, where he attracts a phalanx of misfit allies, many of whom are special-ed; the group is crudely nicknamed, as we learn later, "Spooky and the Spastics." Gurion spreads a high-minded philosophy of resistance by his "this Side of Damage" to the authorities' "the Arrangement," which resistance is illustrated in the school's ominpresent "WE DAMAGE WE" (or is it "WE DAMAGE"? Or "DAMAGE WE"?) graffiti.

While subtly and/or not-so-subtly fighting the Arrangement -- manned by gruff and pervy gym coach Desormie, frustrated Australian Botha, and seemingly kind principal Brodsky -- Gurion pieces apart myriad dramas: Aptakisic's dominance by the pep-squad gang the Main Hall Shovers, its invasion by a teen pop sensation cursed by Gurion and his friends as "Boystar," his own mentorship by an old man named Flowers who may or may not be imaginary, his father's lawyering for the free speech of an Israelite-hating white supremacist, his mother's prickly IDF past, and (in the squishiest, warmest note of a very distant, cool novel) his own heating and reheating of a stirring crush on goy Eliza June Watermark, referred to simply as June.

As allies and compatriots dip in and out of Gurion's campaign -- there's a whole slew of them -- one in particular seems to play the most complex and significant role: Benji Nakamook. First just a dark friend to Gurion, then a loyal but insecure partner, then wholly traitorous, and then a tragic foil… Benji's arc in the novel is extraordinary. I had my moments wishing there would be a clearer picture of him (some kind of stark, head-to-toe, universal shot at his character), but Levin resists this.

He resists it in almost everything: the prose stays vivid, momentous, sensual all the way through, but -- as with Benji, with Gurion's parents, with the physics/procedure/choreography of every complicated event -- it usually seems ineffectual in literary terms, in terms of utility. Volume against clarity. For instance, Gurion is always more content to puzzle over the intricacies of every little human motivation or Tanakh subtext than to provide any sort of exposition at all.

But it's a strength of The Instructions, I think, to withhold/derange/disorder something as simple as a key bit of exposition. I would hate for Levin to just give up and say "I guess since I'm giving readers all these demands vis-a-vis gargantuan length, weird Hebraic details, etc., then I might as well give in and let them have some easy indulgences." No, he steps back, stays true to himself, keeps that vision of Gurion as messianic + furious + monumental + arcane as accurate as he possibly can.

--Because I think it's far more necessary than most people would pre-judge it as, to keep all the strangeness in. Far from just "My next book will be very long, very Jewish, and--oh yes--I'll need to get a story for it as well" -- length and Jewishness are just choices! -- it's an essential outgrowth of the character as is.

The climax of the novel, the so-called Damage Proper -- previously alluded to, in hushed but authoritative tones, as "the 11/17 miracle," "the start of the Gurionic war," etc…. exactly like the high holy day it must be for Gurion's disciples -- is a good example of this. Levin sacrifices nothing for clarity. There's horrible, violent, malevolent business (kids getting beat up, the school overthrown by Gurion and his gang) mixed with funny asides (eg. a boy named Fox musing on what should happen if he gets a wang-itch while slyly playing a hostage for the cameras outside). It's the best synthesis I think I've ever seen of shocking horror with giddy humanity.

When Josh Berman, previously a leader of the Main Hall Shovers, reconciles with the group during their insurrection only to eventually betray them again, the previous comedy/tragedy duality collides head-on with a new, unique sort of warm but serious pathos. Even as it's unstable, impermanent, stylistically fucked up, Levin's elegant soup of feelings is wondrous. Still exacting and perspicacious in the subtext of his own text, Gurion carefully alludes to The Catcher in the Rye's delicate shuffle of causation during the possible-molestation episode.

And during the final moments, June's advice to Gurion -- before the miraculous zenith of his oratory career, before the apex of his religious career -- is to delay remembering one particular tragedy in the school. If he remembered it so soon afterward, he would taint it by forming a digestible story, by making it easy and understandable.

The same could be said, really, for The Instructions itself: to form an understanding of the Damage Proper too soon (by, I don't know, Levin having started it in media res… or somehow without 900 pages preceding it) would be disastrous and dishonest. I would never believe such a thing was possible.
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