Alan's Reviews > The Instructions

The Instructions by Adam Levin
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's review
Oct 24, 2011

liked it
Recommended to Alan by: Its massive size and striking cover
Recommended for: Both Israelites and goyim with an interest in damaging the Arrangement
Read in October, 2011

"Verbosity is like the iniquity of idolatry."
15:23 Samuel I, Gurionic translation
I've never seen this verse rendered that way anywhere else, but Adam Levin's version does make ironic sense, given the cinderblock dimensions of this novel. Don't let the size of the undertaking throw you, though—sure, The Instructions is a daunting monster of a book, over 1,000 pages long, but Levin's genre-defying prose has a headlong momentum that never seems to falter. The easy comparison—it even appears on the back cover of the edition I read—is with David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, but that's apparently simply because of its sheer size and comparably intricate structure. They're totally different in detail, and I would not simply recommend one to fans of the other.


Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, writer of The Instructions, is a preternaturally articulate ten-year-old Jewish (or, to use Gurion's own preferred term, Israelite) boy, son of a prominent civil-rights lawyer and an Ethiopian-born former Israeli soldier. He's a natural leader, charismatic and compelling, and it's understandably difficult for him to accept the authority of more ignorant and inept, if usually well-meaning, authority figures. Gurion has been diagnosed with ADHD (note that this isn't necessarily the same thing as having ADHD), and his violent history has led him to be expelled from several Chicago-area schools before being virtually incarcerated in Aptakisic, a suburban public school with a high population of other special-needs kids. Gurion (the name means "Lion," by the way) doesn't consider himself the Messiah, exactly, but he is definitely open to the possibility that Adonai has chosen him for some special purpose.

Of course, The Instructions is not the tale of Gurion alone—if nothing else, he has to have someone to give The Instructions to. He is surrounded by a host of colorful, unique characters. Allies abound, like Eliza June Watermark, love of Gurion's life and an Israelite in her heart; Eliyahu from Brooklyn, a contradictory mix of erudition and rage; Vincie Portite, who is perhaps rage without erudition; and Benji Nakamook, Gurion's best friend and the only non-Israelite privileged to see The Instructions (suitably edited) from Gurion's own hand. Foes beset Gurion and his Side of Damage as well, from the malevolent authoritarianism of Victor Botha and Ron Desormie, to the seductive aloofness of basketball star Bam Slokum.

You definitely have to be familiar with (if not necessarily reverent towards) a lot of American Jewish culture to get into this one—and willing to suspend a certain amount of disbelief as well. The fundamental assumptions under which Gurion operates are just not ones you'd expect from a kid his age. And, too, The Instructions is written in a bizarre idiolect, a combination of scholarly diction, Yiddish terms and schoolboy slang that is intricate and entertaining, but... no actual human ten-year-old would speak or write that way. Gurion's just not a realistic character, and the author himself acknowledges this indirectly, in a footnote, ostensibly a letter from Philip Roth to Gurion, in which "Roth" calls on Gurion to stop pretending to be a grade-schooler.

Also, Gurion has that most dangerous of human traits: an unshakeable conviction in his own righteousness. That is what eventually turns The Instructions from a sprawling farce into a tragedy... even if Gurion himself would never realize it. Even if he's right about himself—for that matter, even if G-d himself never figures it out. Infinite Jest may be the easy comparison, but it's not really accurate. What this book really reminds me of, more than any other—both in its virtues (except for brevity) and its flaws—is Lord of the Flies.


The turning point for me came more than halfway in, in a scene starting on p.587, when Gurion psychoanalyzes the school psychologist Sandy Billings and pretty much demolishes her. From that point on the book becomes less the story of a brilliant child who's caught some bad breaks and more... something else entirely. A telling line points out that (in contrast to Gurion's Israelites), "the Unitarian god has no wrath." And this is true... as something like a Unitarian myself (heh... how wishy-washy is that?), I know it's true. But that doesn't necessarily mean that a wrathful god must be the real one.

Gurion's Adonai is most certainly a wrathful Lord, though, and—in further irony—the story of Gurion becomes much less ambiguous just as he lauds (in another footnote, anyway) J.D. Salinger's refusal to disambiguate Holden Caulfield.


Do I think Levin knew what he was doing? Not entirely, no—sometimes The Instructions seems a little outta control (kinda like, it must be said, this review). However... as fiction, The Instructions works very well. As prophecy, perhaps not so much... but then that's not really the point, is it? If you decide to embark upon this book... if you survive the first few hundred pages... then you will be rewarded with a fascinating and often disturbing journey. I have no doubt about that. The Instructions themselves may change you, even if you have no interest in following them. Gurion believes that, I think, and... I think he convinced me too. At least a little bit.
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