The spine of Adam Levin's gargantuan first novel is 3 inches thick, which means it will take up almost twice as much space on your bookshelf as Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. That makes the book daunting enough as a matter of real estate alone. Perhaps the more pressing literary question is whether Levin's apocalyptic fantasy of a four-day end-times battle at Illinois' Aptaksic Junior High, in November 2006, is enthralling enough to pass the Tolstoy Challenge. (Anytime a thousand-page book — from Caro, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, etc. — makes a splash as noisy as this novel from McSweeney's has made, I can't help wondering if I would be better investing my long reading hours in War and Peace.)
In this case — even having been dazzled by much of The Instructions — I'm not sure I wouldn't have been better off on the battlefields of czarist Russia. The narrator of Levin's book is the preteen Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, expelled from three Jewish schools and at the start of his insurrection a 10-year-old denizen of the Aptaksic "Cage," where the most troublesome and potentially violent students are in a kind of permanent detention. Gurion, the heir to the ancient Jewish warriors whose name he bears, may or may not be the Messiah.
The conceit of The Instructions is that it isn't a novel at all; it is Gurion's "new scripture," his account of the four-day battle, published in 2013 by followers who have preserved it as a definitive history of the early days of their movement toward a spiritual rebirth of the Israelites. But the enemies against whom he and his ragtag followers wage war in 21st century America — a central-casting array of capricious school authorities — are ultimately too minor to sustain full interest in this Armageddon in a teapot.
Whether the deity worshipped here is Adonai, the God of Israel, or Gurion's "favorite writer" Philip Roth remains an open question. Roth even makes a cameo appearance (by telephone) at the novel's climax, attempting to intercede in a hostage crisis. Perhaps it's inevitable that Roth disappoints Gurion's high expectations. Perhaps in a novel this ambitious, it's inevitable that the reader, too, will be disappointed. Gurion's repeated insistence on the differences between scripture and fiction — "I write scripture," he tells Roth. "You have to read it different. It matters what I do" — never coheres.
This conceptual flaw leaves the length and didacticism of The Instructions at odds with the delicate observations that stand out as its momentous strengths. Gurion is attuned to the slightest tremors of feeling, and Levin renders these with entrancing simplicity. The reader swoons along with Gurion as he kisses his first love, Eliza June Watermark. "I can't tell my face from her face. ... It was like being in the first and third person at the same time."
At the heart of this Instructions is the tender story of a precocious and lonely 10-year-old boy who, bookish, brooding and pious, daydreams through the endless detentions and yearns to find peace as he is caught between attentive but warring parents. This Gurion, struggling to rewrite the secular suburban world in which he finds himself so unhappy and out of place, is vibrant and convincing, even as he nearly sinks beneath the weight of the heavy spiritual armor he is forced to wear.