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The Instructions

by Adam Levin

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The Instructions by Adam Levin
© McSweeney's
McSweeney's, November 2010

In over one thousand pages, Adam Levin's The Instructions follows four days in the life of Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, a fifth grader in Aptakisic Junior High's "Cage Program," a severely monitored schooling system for children with behavioral disorders. Some of Gurion's classmates are handicapped, many are prone to violence, but Gurion is afflicted with something far more peculiar: an indecisive messianic complex and a penchant for writing scripture. Gurion's a Jew but calls himself an Israelite, and when he's not reading Philip Roth novels he's working on his third book of scripture, "The Instructions." He discovered dangerously early in his life that his peers would seek him out for guidance, something that allowed Gurion to play the role of both religious and political leader for his classmates. The Instructions begins with the familiar patina of McSweeney's-brand intellectual quirkiness, but as the novel progresses it becomes apparent that there is something far more serious and uncomfortable going on. Gurion gains disciples. He teaches them to make weapons. Although we rarely stray outside of Gurion's precocious-but-still-a-child narrative voice, the inevitable dread of a school uprising creeps into The Instructions with masterful finesse.
Adam Levin seems to understand how big a commitment it is to put a book like The Instructions on top of your reading list, and in order to remedy any reader-apprehension he has carefully plotted his book in a way that not only consistently entertains but propels the reader forward with drama and intrigue. The plot unfolds in unexpected directions, widening our interest as the spotlight is placed on many of the novel's secondary characters. Sections of the novel disconnect from the looming school attack and follow e-mail chains, psychiatric evaluations and Hebrew lessons, all of which function as a sort of apocrypha to the "scripture" that is The Instructions. These threads sprawl, but they sprawl at a pace so careful and calculated that it doesn't take long to put one's trust in Levin's skills as a writer. At a relatively early point in the novel, Gurion introduces the history of The Shovers, one of Aptakisic's cliques whose freedom of religious expression (or lack thereof) is central to the novel's dramatic arc. But before getting too deep into their story, Gurion slips a sly note to his readers:

"I've elected to provide this cumbersome footnote... in which I will, following the colon, state something I'd have hoped would be obvious to everyone, but apparently isn't: ...I want to assure you that if you feel a little lost, it's not because you missed something, but rather because I haven't gotten to it yet. So now I'll start getting to it, and finish later when I'm finished. You will understand."
It's this sort of quiet self-awareness that makes The Instructions such a joy to read. Sure, it is a commitment, but it is a gamble that will certainly prove rewarding for any patient reader.

Without question, The Instructions is the best novel McSweeney's has ever published. This is a book that essays could be (and will be) written about. There is a dizzying amount of angles with which to dig into the novel, and Levin gives his readers the means to extrapolate his book in endless ways. We can read as psychologist, theologian, linguist, and still not reach all that Levin's buried in his book. He has achieved something so truly outstanding with his debut novel: despite its four-digit page count, The Instructions is a book to re-read.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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