Review: The Instructions by Adam Levin

The Instructions, by Adam Levin (of Chicago novelist fame, not Adam Levine of Moron 5 fame), is the bibliophile’s book. But I’ll get to that later. First, business:

On my way to work this morning, I noticed a woman on the train de-purse her e-reader. A fairly typical early-morning L ritual. Based on empirical evidence, it seems that an average of 65% of a standard weekday-morning L car is populated by Readers. Approximately 50% of that 65% uses a e-reader. Approximately 25% of that 65% is reading a daily or weekly. The remaining 25% of that 65% is the soft- and hard-cover crowd.

As a card-punching cosmopolite, I’m used to this numerical dispersion. I’m tired by the e versus print debates, which are ultimately senseless. Though I do not own an e-reader, I am not dismissive of those who do. “As long as they’re reading,” the Good Citizen of me says. However, part of the senselessness of the e versus print argument is based on the assumption that a book and an e-reader are different entities. They are not categorically apposite, but they come from different monsters.

If people were willing to understand these categorical differences, then maybe there would be world peace. Nonetheless, similarities are posited (perhaps for the sake of contention), and the war wages on. I stand on the hills in the distance, waiting to plunder the corpses, so to speak.

But when that e-reader was de-pursed and it’s faux-leather cover opened, I saw something that nearly drove me to arms. The screen of the e-reader had a skin made to mimic the shelf-worn appearance of something you’d find folded in the stacks of your Friendly Neighborhood Used Book Store. It had all the folds, corner chips, smudges, stains and other attrition suffered by a printed book that has been in suburban circulation since the Space Race. A picture of Mark Twain was in the center, equally Photoshopped. With a flick of her finger, the skin was ‘removed’ and the woman then accessed her device, oblivious.

It’s like a person who wears a nylon sleeve with a tattoo print. If you’re not tattooed, don’t pretend that you are. If you’re not a book, don’t pretend that you are. If this behavior is acceptable now (and clearly, it is), then it will continue to be acceptable. If the Thing-That-Is-Clearly-Not-The-Thing-It-Is-Imitating continues to imitate, it will soon ‘become’ the Thing-That-Has-Now-Mysteriously-Become-The-Thing-It-Was-Imitating. By doing this we create (or nurture) a material economy based entirely on forfeiture, thus rending the forfeiture authentic, and the authentic, forfeiture. Look at the videos of the toddlers pressing the pages of print magazines, wondering why the touchscreen is broken.

Re-enter Adam Levin’s The Instructions. Published by McSweeney’s in 2011, this 1,026-page Book of Books tells the story of Israelite-by-way-of-Suburban-Chicago Gurion Maccabee. He’s a 10-year-old obsessive genius who might just be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. The story (or as Maccabee-the-narrator calls it, the Scripture) takes place over four days in 2006 at the semi-fictional Aptakisic Junior High School in the Chicago Suburbs. Gurion’s father is a high-profile civil liberties lawyer who, though himself Jewish, is the subject of national media coverage for his defense of a north-suburban neo-Nazi’s right to free speech. Gurion’s mother is a professional psychologist and ex-Israeli warrior/assassin.

Gurion has been kicked out of the Hebrew Day School circuit and is at Aptakisic as a last resort. He has a loyal band of followers, who eventually number in the hundreds. Some of them consider him a rabbi, and he refers to many of his ‘Israelite’ followers as scholars, as he too is a scholar.

People have compared Levin-via-Instructions to David Foster Wallace. Levin’s hyperactive attention to the minutiae and incoherence of banal reality might echo DFW’s, but other than that, the comparison simply seems to be a nerdish way to say that, like DFW’s Infinite Jest, Levin’s The Instructions is also a long book. (Apparently, Levin spent nine years writing it, too.)

As far as what The Instructions is about: it’s a long and ceaselessly entertaining book. Because Levin is so exacting in his examination and analyses of Absolutely Everything, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this book is about everything, though it might also be about the process of what it means to be so exacting in an obsessively comprehensive and universal analysis. It’s smart, clever, and it’s funny, too. It’s no easy task to sustain such intense energy for a short story, much less a story that spreads over 1,026 pages. He opens the book with an irony, that ‘verbosity is like the sin of idolatry.’

The subject of Judaism is central to the narrative. While an important theme, it might also polarize readers who are unfamiliar with the context of contemporary Jewish questions. For this reason, I do not suspect that The Instructions will ever be included in the canon of Great Literature, simply because many of the motives and controversies aroused by The Instructions are too nuanced. Because I am matrilineally Jewish (don’t let my last name fool you), I am – at the very least – conscious of the questions of Law, Messiahship, Zionism, etc. But I consider myself on the periphery, and if I were any less versed, I might also feel less compelled or interested in Gurion’s plight.

There is likely no other publisher beside McSweeney’s who would have touched this book. McSweeney’s fetishizes book design, and the nature of The Instructions necessitates the fetishization. It could have been released serially, as a three-or-four-part series, but throughout the book, Gurion refers to the book itself as Scripture. By virtue of that, the book must necessarily have the appearance of Scripture, though The Instructions has a heft bordering on concordance-level. However, unlike most scripture, The Instructions is compulsively readable and entertaining through-and-through. It’s like being in the potential Messiah’s head for 48 hours straight. It’s exhausting, but as it nears the climax, it’s invigorating and – to borrow a word – unputdownable.

Ultimately, if it were in e-reader form, it wouldn’t carry the same weight. Double meaning intended.

Publisher: McSweeney’s
ISBN: 978-1936365166
Binding: Hardcover
Price: $16.00

[Adam Levin’s much-shorter (256 page) Hot Pink, a book of short stories, is due for release in March, 2012. We’re all over that.]

[Feature image from Printed & Bound]

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