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THE INSTRUCTIONS by Adam Levin

I can admit when I’m wrong about a book, and this is probably the most embarrassing example of the year. Our initial order on The Instructions was a boxful, and when it came in, I remember picking one of the copies up and being like, “Over 1000 pages for a DEBUT?! That is ballsy. That is ridonk. I hope people buy it,” and moving on with my life.

But then Adam Levin came to read at the store a few weeks ago, and in the meantime I began feeling warmly towards it for no apparent reason except that I liked the cover. Also, I found the NYT review of the book unnecessarily meanspirited and so began siding with The Instructions out of empathy. (Women, amirite?) His reading was good, very good, and I bought the book and had him sign it and took it with me when I went to my dad’s for Thanksgiving because I knew that being on a train would force me to give the book a fair chance.

Since then, for the last week, I have been devouring it whenever possible: in bed, with breakfast, while cooking, while getting dressed, while feeding the cats. Given that the book is, you know, the size of four bricks stacked in a square, this was no easy task (aside for the middle third, where the weight of the book kept itself open, which was nice). I found myself squeezing as much of the book into my days as possible and finished the final 200 pages last night even though I had a wicked, temple-pounding headache, because when I turned the lights off and tried to go to sleep without reading it, I couldn’t.

Given all this, it was a surprise to me when a friend asked me yesterday, “So, do you like it?” and I answered, “You know, I’m not really sure.” Now I am sure, though.

At this point you can assume that, while I will try to avoid spoiling any specific plot points, I might spoil some of the general mise-en-scene of the later parts of the book, which I would not have wanted anyone to do for me, so just consider this your warning.

I hate precocious child and teen narrators in adult novels more than almost anything, as a rule, but found Gurion Maccabee enjoyable, along with every other precocious ten-year-old in the book. This, I think, is for two reasons. Firstly, Levin has done a good job of creating in his book a world that is basically exactly like ours (= early 21st-century America) but adjusting certain aspects of it in such a way that it feels distant and surreal. In that context, ten-year-old Torah experts seem normal, as does their obsessive over-thinking about, well, everything. Usually, precocious narrators exist in novels that are crafted to be exactly like the time in which the author is writing, which is unbearable for me, but the world of The Instructions is just different enough that I can think of Gurion as a fictional character and not a kid I would never want to meet in real life.

At the same time, I think the over-intellectualization of the kids is a red herring of a sort, for this book. It’s easy to be distracted by it and easier still to make it the focal point of the novel. But they still act like ten-year-olds (and twelve-year-olds, but no one is older than 13, I’m pretty sure, as this all takes place in a middle school) in many respects: their logic is reductive, their morals absolute and diametric, their alliances strict but prone to sudden change. It is because they are ten-year-olds, not adults, that the book becomes so violent: they are not capable of long-term thinking. (Not, of course, that having an adult frontal lobe necessarily keeps one out of violent situations. But I think you know what I mean; the mob violence that makes up the climax of the book isn’t exclusive to pre-teens but it’s sure aided by their presence). Gurion is a character who I came to have great affection for, but he’s also pretty religious, which means he holds values (about gay people, about intermarriage, &c) with which I don’t agree in the slightest, and which signify to me how rigid his thinking is, and is important to how things end up.

What this book does incredibly well is access the feeling of being a smart, driven ten-year-old trying to make sense of a confusing world, and channel that into a much bigger story. Ten and eleven and twelve are odd years, in which you still have the naivete and imagination of a child but are starting to come to grips with the way of things, and hormones are just starting to have their way with you. They are uncomfortable ages, in my experience, but also the ages where you start understanding the world and your place in it. In that sense, Levin has picked exactly the right ages for his protagonists. There’s also just enough material from the adults of the book to keep how Gurion perceives himself and how he is perceived by others in a perfect state of tension.

This is what propelled me through the book. There are definitely parts of the book that I’m not sure are necessary, including a number of maps, which are interesting but really distracting, and also made me wonder if I’d’ve understood some of the more complicated scenes without a map in hand, and whether some of the writing could have been clearer. I also found some of the metacommentary in the book unnecessary and, again, found myself wondering if it was just Levin being insecure and anticipating potential criticisms of the book (and then wondering if this is something that will be happening more often, given the new level of interaction between writer and reader—-are writers going to start launching the first salvo in the book itself?). But these things were all minor, to me. Being immersed in the brain of this kid was all I wanted to do. Levin is incredibly talented at pacing, so the length of the book becomes undaunting. So being with this smart kid was almost easy, and thus, addictive.

(And speaking of addiction, w/r/t all the DFW comparisons: yes, they are inevitable, given the length of The Instructions; Levin’s by-turns-street-slang-by-turns-dissertation writing style; the book’s main characters being young, precocious and in a school; the book being highly stylized and yet prone to moments of truth in the oddest places; and so on. This is a book that owes a great deal to Infinite Jest in one way or another. But I am uncomfortable with all the DFW comparisons because I feel they are often made in a derogatory way, which is unfair. I don’t want writers to be scared off of writing big, expansive, daring novels because they think people are going to be like “hey your book would have been great twenty years ago BEFORE DFW wrote it OHHH SICK BURN”; I like those books, I’m glad people are still trying to write them, and don’t think the fact that Infinite Jest is a particular masterpiece of that type of book should be held against anybody. Is this book as good as IJ? No, it’s not. Who cares? Also, of COURSE people try to write sentences the way DFW did. Half the Internet does. It’s fun to read when done well and fun to write. Can we stop holding that against people?)

Ultimately, I guess the ambition that this book and IJ share is why I like this book so much. I have a co-worker who loves ambitious books above all else; the phrase he uses over and over to describe them is to say that they “swing for the fences,” a phrase that I rather like despite not really caring about baseball. The Instructions swings for the fences from page 1—-or so I thought, until I got to the last 300 pages or so, and realized that what I had perceived as swinging for the fences in the first 700 pages was actually just Levin on deck, practicing with those donuts at the end of his bat. The book starts out strong and only gets stronger. Though it’s not a perfect book (yes, I know, what is?), it is peopled with characters who I don’t want to let go, and it is compulsively readable, and Levin went for it, really went for it, and for that, I loved every page.

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