There seems to be no review of this mammoth novel (it clocks in at over 1,000 pages) that doesn’t draw it into a comparison with a certain other writer of large works of fiction. Perhaps the best course of action is to address the matter up front so more relevant aspects of this book can be discussed. David Foster Wallace, David Foster Wallace, David Foster Wallace. The fact that two white authors both wrote extremely long novels with an adolescent protagonist does not mean they are intertwined. I would be quite surprised if Levin hadn’t read Infinite Jest, but that’s hardly a qualification for comparing the two works. Rather, sometimes two things of a similar but wholly disparate nature can exist without any phantom parallels being forced upon them.
The Instructions is the story of Gurion Maccabee, a ten year-old who might be the messiah. The novels spans a mere four days and the length can be mostly attributed to Levin’s habit of dissecting Gurion’s thought process at the most minute level at each and every moment. It is fascinating to read the hypothetical conclusions Gurion reaches based on a word he might say or an action he could take. In a corresponding move, the characters speak in a slang-based shorthand, a jargon that takes root somewhere between A Clockwork Orange and text message abbreviations. One need only read a few pages in to discover the world of Gurion and his co-horts is not our own, despite the numerous similarities.
I took 4 months to read this book (namely because I kept slipping other books in as I paced myself through the lengthy narrative), and I feel it reads well in steady, small doses. Gurion’s delivery as narrator is exhausting, in an impressive way, and I am truly impressed at anyone who could devour this novel whole in a matter of weeks. The plot, which is told through the vehicle of an older Gurion publishing his writings of the four days in Aptakisic Jr. High that lead up to something he most certainly does not believe was a miracle. There are footnotes scattered throughout the novel that serve as current day Gurion remarking on and clarifying matters (calm down DFW people). Gurion is in love with Eliza June Watermark, his father is a Jewish lawyer that defends anti-Semites, his mother is a former Israeli secret service agent, his best friend Benji Nakamook is a hulking mass of anger and insight and oh yeah, the kid’s fiercely religious and spends big passages of text extracting new meanings from classical old testament parables.
The Instructions is an amazing novel. Is it one of my all-time favorites? No, probably not. And yet, it’s so vastly different from the fiction I’m usually drawn to, it might as well rank amongst the books I most respect because I’ll never forget it and I’ll sure as hell never write anything anywhere near as impressive. This isn’t a book to quit after a few pages. You’ll need a good 300 before you even get into the rhythm of things. Gurion makes references in the latter half that compel you to go back and re-read earlier parts. This work is significant to the modern lexicon of literature. Whether you worship it or despise it, you can’t deny the skill Levin employs in creating such a dense, peculiar world and populating it with characters that remind me of no other fiction. So maybe Foster Wallace and Levin do have something in common, after all: they both wrote books so unique and immense that people will feel obligated to compare future fiction against them.