Apparently, my theme for reading this autumn is “books the size of my hea.” First, Ulysses; now, Adam Levin’s The Instructions. (Joshua Cohen’s Witz is up next, I suspect. Or maybe George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.)
Two reviews come highly recommended. Maud Newton’s is what first piqued my interest in the novel, while Bookavore’s is spot-on in its take on the novel’s ambition, its risks, and its debt (or lack thereof) to other massive/ambitious novels of recent vintage (specifically, those of David Foster Wallace).
So: some reflections. If there is a Wallace influence here, I’d say that it’s less in the way the novel plays with text and — to a much lesser extent — with media., though those qualities are definitely present, and do suggest the comparison. If there’s one aspect ofÂ The Instructions that does call to mind Infinite Jest, it’s more the structure: not quite a proper circle, but one which buries pieces of information. It seems innocuous at first, but slowly, over the course of hundreds of pages, casual references and even simply the presence of certain names begin to become hugely significant.
Levin also uses his scope well. There’s a certain cumulative effect that one can only find in a novel of a certain size — that combination of narrative or symbolic payoff with length. (The moment in Pynchon’s Against the Day in which the book’s title is explained, for instance; having made my way through three-quarters of the novel, the force of that section, of that explanation, gave me chills.) Here, it comes very near the end of the novel; it provides context for a certain passage of text, and it’s masterful.
The novel’s coda finds Levin writing in a particularly controlled yet chaotic tone, wrapping a host of speculation and possibilities in a curiously restrained way.Â And it’s significant that, though Levin has created a particularly striking narrator in Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, two of the novel’s most resonant passages are written in the voices of other characters. The ambition and thematic implications of The Instructions are impressive enough. What makes this novel even more impressive are the unexpected places that Levin takes risks — and that those risks pay off as well as they do.