Shawn Towner's Reviews > The Instructions

The Instructions by Adam Levin
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's review
Oct 08, 2010

really liked it

1,000-page book are always an interesting experience. No matter how great the talent of an author, maintaining sustained interest and excitement in a 100-page novel is an artistic challenge of the highest order. Sustaining interest and excitement over the entirety of a 1000-page novel is a downright impossibility. So, like any 1000-page novel, Adam Levin’s The Instructions has its slow points, about a 200-page chunk just before the midpoint of the novel. During those chapters, I was almost ready to give up on the novel. The characters were so frustrating, so unlikeable that spending another 500-600 pages with them seemed like a punishment. However, I had pumped myself up for the task of tackling a 1000-page novel, and I wasn’t going to let remorselessly violent characters and their enabling parents fail at that task. Thankfully, my perseverance was rewarded. Although many of Levin’s characters are not likable, their unlikablity (unlikeableness? I don’t think either one of those are real words, but I’m sticking with unlikability) helps to create a novel that is confoundingly brilliant; the type of novel that will never provoke the same reaction from different readers.

The Instructions tells the story of Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, a 10-year-old scholar and provocateur. Kicked out of a variety of Jewish schools for violent outburst, Gurion ends up in a program called the Cage, which is essentially an in-school lock down for the worst of the worst students. In the cage, students are not allowed to talk or even look at one another and the teachers and monitor give them no support, causing the students to act out, which in turn leads to harsher disciplinary consequences. As an educator, I realize that this type of situation will never be productive. It breeds a level of discontent and disrespect that will never be reconciled. So I understand why Gurion feels it is necessary to lead a revolt, but what I find distasteful is the levels to which he goes.

Believing that he might possibly be the Messiah, Gurion distribute scriptures, trains an army in secret, then leads his followers in a violent revolt that is, if not Biblical, at the very least Shakespearean in magnitude. People die, children are mutilated and tortured, and all this is done largely without remorse. Even Gurion’s parents, at least in the early stages of the book, encourage his standoffishness and his desire to overcome his oppressors. It is the fact that Gurion and his followers show so little empathy for those around them and so little remorse or concern for their actions that make The Instructions so frustrating.

On the other hand, the book is structured as Scripture; as the Word of Gurion. So it is possible that this sociopathic disregard for humanity is an issue of perspective. Gurion want to be seen as a righteous and just leader, and righteous and just leaders don’t have qualms about their actions.
Then there’s the fact that Gurion and his followers have admirable qualities. They are smart, loyal, loving, and have been treated in ways that no middle schooler should have to experience. I want to like Gurion, in spite of his arrogant disregard for the safety and well-being of others (which is the same disregard shown to he and his friends in the Cage). I want to like Gurion’s sidekicks, Benji Nakamook and Eliyahu of Brooklyn, in spite of their psychotic outburst and belief that violence will solve their problems. I do like the female characters, June and Jelly, who bring out the goodness in Gurion and Benji. And I love the fat characters, with their broken English and their desire to finally stand up for themselves, just not with the same level of violence as Gurion and his Side of Damage. It is these redeeming qualities, even as the characters destroy their school and their classmates, that makes the book enjoyable, even if the characters are not.

Over the course of the 1000+ pages of The Instructions, I went from despising the characters, to rooting for them, to despising them, to begrudgingly accepting their handling of an out-of-control situation. Any work that can hold my interest, sway my emotions, and frustrate me to the point of almost quitting, is okay in my book. And The Instructions is more than okay. It’s great.
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Reading Progress

October 8, 2010 – Started Reading
October 8, 2010 – Shelved
October 9, 2010 –
page 125
12.14% "100 down, only 900 to go. Fajitas will empower me."
October 17, 2010 – Finished Reading

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