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Following 'The Instructions': Chris Barton's 100-odd page report

November 1, 2010 | 12:16 pm

“The Instructions” is big. Like, “Maybe e-readers aren’t so bad,” big, at least when it comes to portability. At three pounds and 1,030 pages, it’s no easy companion for the bus, airplane or even a local cafe, where carrying this book under your arm is akin to being the guy at the beach with a parrot on your shoulder. This is a book that not only demands attention, but perhaps its own carrying case.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Big, chunky novels are naturally alluring, and aided by the same fetishistic design eye that McSweeney’s shows with its quarterly journal, “The Instructions” is doubly so with its gold-dusted rising/falling child figures on the cover (it comes in red, blue and gray). It draws you in on sight, kind of like how some people probably view Mt. Whitney.

But the inevitable question is, will the trip be worth it? Given the math involved, the first 100-odd pages probably isn’t a fair sample of “The Instructions,” Adam Levin’s first novel, but realistically it’s enough to build an impression -- one would hope, anyway. Crossing 1,000 pages is relatively common in sci-fi and fantasy novels, where building new worlds requires serious real estate. But it’s a notable stretch elsewhere these days, unless you’re getting into the knotty structural dance of David Foster Wallace (who Levin is compared with right on the back cover).

Levin clearly wants to build a new world with narrator Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, a precocious 10-year-old (is there any other kind in literature these days?) sentenced to a last-resort disciplinary wing at a Chicago-area private school. With Gurion and his classmates bantering beyond their years with a witty if not entirely coherent slang (“kenobi" for  “wise,” “chomsky” for ... foolish, maybe?), “The Instructions” seems set in some strange parallel universe, albeit one that includes disorientingly real references to Mike Tyson and Larry David.

The book hinges on Gurion’s troubles with religion, where his questioning of faith in Torah study got him bounced around various schools in the first place. Like the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” Levin’s exploration of Judaism and untranslated dips into Hebrew isn’t always easy to approach, but in the early going it offers a similarly interesting view of the culture for those unfamiliar with the faith.

The core issue for the reader, however, is Gurion’s tendency toward tangents. With multiple pages devoted to his OCD-level consideration of how to best shoot out a clock with a handmade “penny gun” -- only pages removed from detailed instructions on making said penny gun -- “The Instructions” is set deep inside this 10-year-old’s head. Though its early nods toward Gurion’s charismatic pull among classmates hints toward the book’s assumed climax (the back cover references his leading a revolution), the question is ultimately one of commitment. Is it worth following Gurion over four meticulously documented days in his life while approximately three other novels that could fit in its page-count sit on your shelf?

While the physical appeal of “The Instructions” is tough to shake, so are its obvious challenges. Gurion sounds about as much like a 10-year-old as the average English professor, and a later scene referenced in this Chicago Tribune story about Levin devoting 30 pages to Gurion opening a door may well work in context but from here sounds exactly like the sort of indulgence that leads to brick-shaped novels. 

Still, I can imagine checking in with “The Instructions” in a sort of reading material adultery over the next few months. Levin is clearly out to make a statement, and the kind of ambition shown here isn’t easy to dismiss. Who knows what the view is like after scaling this mountaintop? And, more to the point, would that view still look the same from a height of 600 pages after all?

-- Chris Barton