Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Instructions

by Adam Levin

When reading dense, gigantic novels, I tend to fall into a headspace where finishing them is less a cause of celebration (i.e., "I can finally stop lugging this giant thing around"), as reason to begin mourning the characters and their world after spending so much time with them.  To me, The Instructions, Adam Levin's 1030 page tome, belongs alongside books like Willam T. Vollmann's Fathers and Crows, John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun, Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead, Harry Mulisch's The Discovery of Heaven, and Roberto Bolaño's 2666, as a book that I found completely immersive and consuming.

Unlike those other books, which are all have a sprawl to match their heft, Levin takes just over 1000 pages to detail only four days in the life of his narrator, Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, one of the most unique and believable (while not being plausible) characters I've ever read.

Gurion believes he may be the long-awaited Jewish messiah.  Having been kicked out of a pair of Jewish schools for violence, and being expelled from the Chicago school system for more violence, Gurion has washed up at Aptakisic Junior High School's CAGE program, a lock-down class for troubled students.  He must spend his days sitting in a study carrell, facing forward, and not talking to anyone, at the supposed mercy of Monitor Botha, the hook-handed Australian who runs the program like the petty tyrant he is.

Gurion is an incredibly bright (and verbose) ten-year old, who became revered among students at the Jewish schools for his scholarship and leadership.  While their are few Israelites (never Jews) in the Cage, it's not long before Gurion begins to bring these violent, strange, and just misunderstood kids together under the banner of The Side of Damage.  Before this happens, Gurion falls in love with Eliza June Watermark, and has many long conversations with just about everyone around him.

Levin has crafted a very complex look into a junior high school.  Aptakisic has a number of groups, from the traditional basketball stars, the band kids, and the everykid no-ones, but also has the Main Hall Shovers, a thuggish group that model themselves on British soccer hooligans, but who also are concerned with the design of their uniform neck scarves.  Levin's school has complex rules around detentions and hall passes, and the Cage system is almost medieval in its inability to meet anyone's needs.

This book is full of fascinating characters.  Leaving Gurion aside, his friends and enemies are all complex and fully realized.  His best friend, Benji Nakamook is a brutal thug with a very clear and demanding understanding of loyalty.  Bam Slokum is the god of the school, a position he is both very aware of and beholden to.  Eliyahu of Brooklyn undergoes the biggest transformation in the book; a recently orphaned Orthodox youth with little understanding of other kids, he becomes a powerful leader in his own right under Gurion's tutelage.  There are many other memorable characters in this book - Ronny Desormie, the pervy gym teacher; the Five, a group of young Israelite friends; Leevon, the elective mute; BryGuy Maholtz, the nasally bully; the fascistic Monitor Botha; Call-Me-Sandy, the psychology student with a crush on her professor; Boystar, the child popstar who attends the school; and Main Man Mookus, a Cage student who has Williams Cocktail Party Syndrome, a form of retardation that causes him to speak in great long, complex sentences, the meaning of which he doesn't understand.

And then there are Gurion's parents.  His mother is an Ethiopian-Israelite psychologist who was in the special forces in Israel.  His father is a civil rights lawyer who has taken on a venomous Neo-Nazi as a client.  Their scenes in the book were the only ones that felt a little too long, but their support for and strange parenting of Gurion make the story possible.

Gurion himself is a rare character in literature.  He analyzes everything he does, but often finds that the best response to a situation is violent action.  He comes across as very loveable, but also vicious and dangerous.  He has armed his followers with pennyguns (devices made of pop bottles and balloons that can fire coins with great accuracy) and his own dogma, called Ulpan (or, in English, The Instructions).

The text of this book is meant to be Gurion's own scripture, as he himself wrote it.  To that end, Gurion (or really, Levin) often chooses words that are more 'scriptural' in nature.  When loading up on ammunition before launching the attack on the gym that sets off The Gurionic War, The Side of Damage choose to forsake the dimes, not pass them over.  It is these little touches that make this book so successful.

It's been a long time since I've read a book that has affected me the way The Instructions has.  Levin's consistency of vision, ear for dialogue, constructions of logic and scholarship, and most of all, wicked sense of humour (because this book is funny - I don't think I've conveyed that yet) make this a book I am dying to share with others.  This is an absolute gem, and one of my favourite books of all time.

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