Verbosity is like the iniquity of idolatry – 1 Samuel 15:23
Being in love is tough, especially if you’re a ten-year-old boy whose first name happens to be Gurion; who’s been expelled from school after school following accusations of acts of violence; who has a propensity for vandalism; who’s probably a genius, possibly mentally disturbed (Levin, in interview, says, “I don't think Gurion's necessarily right as a human being”), is definitely
Jewish an Israelite and who just happens to have been smitten by a red-headed Gentile (a Unitarian, not that that makes much difference) called Eliza June Watermark, even if she doesn’t look like your dream girl, Natalie Portman. Oh, and to top everything off you may or may not be the long-awaited Messiah, a suspicion reinforced by two birthmarks on your wrists, two Kabbalistic symbols representing the name of God which your mother makes you cover up with makeup. Really, being in love is probably the least of your problems, come to think of it.
It took Adam Levin nine years to write The Instructions working on average six hours a day, seven days a week whilst holding down a teaching post (he took one week’s vacation a year), during the middle of which his back gave out and so he had to write for two years standing up, but this is the germ that formed the idea from which the book developed:
I started writing about this kid I went to junior high with. He stayed in a motel and smelled like cigars. I don’t know if the other kids made fun of him because they knew he was poor or just because he was different or weird, but in my head, I was like, I want to write about this kid. And then the book rapidly became this other thing.
although in another interview he says:
Nowhere really, unless maybe from the sentence "I towel-snapped the ass of the Janitor," which used to be the first line of the book. Or from having spent my childhood suspecting I was the messiah. Or from having dated a red-haired painter, or from having ceased to date her. Or from having enjoyed fistfights as a boy, or books, or from needing something to do while smoking at my desk.
So who knows?
Gurion ben-Judah Macabee’s life may be complicated, but then Gurion ben-Judah Macabee is one complex kid. An only child of average height and weight, his father (Judah) is a Jewish civil rights lawyer who makes a living defending neo-Nazis on trial for hate-crimes and his mother (Tamar) is a former Israeli Defence Force sniper of Ethiopian descent now employed as a clinical psychologist. As far as these two are concerned their son can do no wrong (Levin says, “The mom takes him seriously as a force. The dad doesn't take him seriously enough.”) and use their respective abilities to defend him against all challengers. For example, when Sandra Billings, a caseworker at the school he is attending when the events outlined in The Instructions take place, attempts to administer standard Psych. or IQ tests she is blocked by Tamar who point blank refuses to concede that her son might have any kind of behavioural disorder and at one point tells the woman bluntly, “You lack the capacity to fathom my son.” Judah defers to Tamar on all matters pertaining to their son’s education.
Although his parents could never be described as devout, their son most definitely is. A Torah scholar, whose ability has not gone unnoticed by the Rabbis who have taught him, some of whom who would not have been at all surprised to see him become the greatest scholar of his generation, his insight into scripture from a very young age is prodigious in every sense of the word. And yet, when we first meet him, he comes across more like a bully than a prophet.
When we first encounter Gurion he’s been expelled from a number of schools, including a yeshiva, beginning with the Solomon Schecter School of Chicago in May 2006 for physically assaulting the Headmaster, then from the Northside Hebrew School a month later for supplying weapons to students (the ‘weapon’ being a homemade device called a pennygun constructed from a two-litre soda bottle sawn in half and a balloon), then from Martin Luther King Middle School six weeks later for apparently assaulting a student with a brick (a charge that he denies). In September 2006 he is enrolled at Aptakisic Junior High. It is noteworthy that when he is expelled from his first school he is in Grade 4 and in just over three months he’s been moved up to Grade 7, but when he starts at what is to be his last school they demote him to the more age-appropriate Grade 5 and immediately place him in an experimental disciplinary program known as CAGE for observation. Within three weeks it becomes patently obvious that, academically at least, he should be moved back to Grade 7, however, it’s decided that he should remain indefinitely within the Cage.
The object behind the Cage is to seclude difficult students. Whilst there, they are not taught the way normal students are. Instead they work on assignments suitable to their grades within one of forty carrels (small cubicles with a desk for the use of a reader or student in a library) so that there can be no contact between classmates. Infringements are dealt with harshly and promptly – they maintain a zero tolerance policy – by their monitor, a “bent Australian claw-fist” called Victor Botha. All schools have rules but here the only time anyone seems to talk to the kids it’s about enforcing these rules. Gurion calls them “robots” and it’s not an unreasonable term to choose.
A good example takes place one morning when Gurion’s mother lets her son sleep late and takes him into school later. When Jerry the Deaf Sentinel asks Tamar to extinguish her cigarette and she insists on finishing it he visibly struggles with how to handle the situation. When she asks him how he would usually respond, he admits:
“There is no precedent,” Jerry said.
“No precedent at all?” my mother soothed … “Would you have me believe,” she said, “that your superiors have failed to establish a protocol for dealing with those who illicitly smoke cigarettes on school grounds?” The cherry was almost down to the letters. Probably three more drags.
“There’s a protocol,” Jerry said, grinding his kicking-toe into the pavement. Then he spoke the largest string of syllables I’d ever heard from him: “I’ve followed the protocol, but when it comes to what to do about someone who, after you’ve followed the protocol, continues to smoke, there’s just nothing in the manual. If you were a student, I suppose I’d go inside and write you up.”
“That is what you should do then,” said my mom.
“But that’s just silly,” said Jerry.
“Maybe it is you who are silly, Jerry,” said my mom.
“Maybe!” Jerry said, eyes gone wide and hopeful at the sound of his name on her lips. He choked on something that would have bloomed into laughter if he wasn’t a robot.
Of course as soon as you segregate people you unify them and units naturally look to be led; the charismatic Gurion turns out to be a natural leader. The question is: In what direction is he going to lead his followers?
On the back of my copy of The Instructions is an unusual quotation:
“WE DAMAGE WE”
It doesn’t make sense, does it? It is not something that originates with Gurion though. But, in his role as leader-cum-rabbi it is something he becomes associated with. He is sitting in his carrel during an interval when talking is permitted, when two pupils, Ronrico Asparagus and Jenny Mangey come into the Cage and rush up to him. “We have questions,” said Mangey.
She hands him a piece of paper with the following written on it:
WE DAMAGE WE
They want to know which one it right. Needless to say, bright though he is, Gurion doesn’t understand the question.
“Which one?” Mangey said to me.
Ronrico said, “It’s one of the first two. I know it.”
Mangey whispered, “Ronrico was bombing [graffiting] the lunch tables and the bleachers with the first two, and he thought he was so smart. But I told him he was not so smart and that we should write WE on both sides of DAMAGE.”
Ronrico said, “You didn’t say which side of damage we were on, Gurion, but you did say we were on the side of it; not the sideszzz of it. You said the side.”
Oh! At the end of Group you mean, I said.
After some discussion Gurion comes up with an explanation that seems to satisfy the two of them:
We are all against the arrangement, always. I said, Sometimes we are on the left side of damage and other times on the right. Often we are on both sides, so both of you are correct.
The beginning-of-class tone sounds and Botha scatters the huddlers to their respective carrels but that is the moment the Side of Damage as a group comes into existence. There is definitely something of a Life of Brian feel to it. Or maybe Life of Brian meets Lord of the Flies (although you could just as easily describe it as Animal Farm meets The Catcher in the Rye) because, although The Instructions is undoubtedly a funny book, much of the time and in a variety of ways it is also a very serious book. Anyone looking for a light read should stop reading right now. And I’m not simply talking here about the dimensions of the book. At 1030-pages (edited down from its original 1500) it requires more than a little perseverance to wade one’s way through it, especially when you learn that it only covers four days, although there are flashes backs and forward. In fact one chapter only covers eight minutes in time (pp.873-902).
To you and I this is a novel. To Gurion, the sole narrator, this is scripture. Published in 2013 (that’s not a typo) by his followers it is an account of his final four days at Aptakisic Junior High and what amounts to – in his, and their, opinions – a spiritual rebirth of the Israelites. He may or may not be the Messiah, and several pages cover the question whether or not a potential messiah would be aware that he was destined to become the Messiah-proper, but that doesn’t stop him writing scripture in case he is the Messiah. Many of his peers already believe he is the Messiah and a few adults, if pressed, would also be willing to concede that that thought may well have crossed their minds.
Hasidic Jews tend to have a particularly strong and passionate belief in the immediacy of the Messiah's coming, and in the ability of their actions to hasten his arrival. Because of the piousness, wisdom, and leadership abilities of the Hasidic Masters, members of Hasidic communities are sometimes inclined to regard their dynastic rebbes who are descended from him as potential candidates for Messiah. Many Jews, (see the Bartenura's explantion on Megillat Rut, and the Halakhic responsa of The Ch'sam Sofer on Choshen Mishpat [vol. 6], Chapter 98 where this view is explicit) especially Hasidim, adhere to the belief that there is a person born each generation with the potential to become Messiah, if the Jewish people warrant his coming; this candidate is known as the Tzadik Ha-Dor, meaning Tzaddik (a Hebrew term literally meaning "righteous one" but used to refer to holy men who can, for example, perform miracles or act as an intermediary between man and God) of the Generation. However, fewer are likely to name a candidate. – Wikipedia
Having read that last paragraph (and putting aside my Christian upbringing for the moment) I can see why there would be those who when faced with Gurion’s at times frightening intellect and insight into the scriptures might wonder if he was a potential candidate. Let’s face it, Jesus was young once and although the Bible skips over most of his life actually there must have been those who wondered what kind of kid this was. Even at five years old, we are told, Gurion asked scriptural questions so complex that his mentor, a rabbinical scholar, was moved to transcribe their conversations. Despite professing to have lost all interest in all things spiritual or liturgical I could not help but get caught up in some of Gurion’s arguments and it was hard not to think of Luke 2:46-47:
And it came to pass, after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both hearing them, and asking them questions: and all that heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
At the time Jesus was twelve.
The thing is, if Gurion is the Messiah then he is a savage one. One of the gripes Christians often make is how different the Gods of the Old and New Testaments are distinguishing between a vengeful Jewish God and the Christian god of love and so I suppose that a Jewish messiah would also reflect their version of God. (I am, of course, playing devil’s advocate here but I don’t want to spend all my time in the comments showing why the two ‘versions’ are perfectly compatible.) The simple fact is, whether rightly or wrongly, the Jews have been persecuted for generations (all you have to do is read André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just to get a good picture of that) and so it’s not unreasonable that a twenty-first-century’s messiah’s first act, the first thing that piques people’s attention, might be something called Ulpan, a set of guidelines for the construction of, effective operation of and dissemination of a weapon known as a pennygun.
It can, of course, be used to fire other objects like pen nibs and wingnuts. But the thing about Uplan is that it outlines just how quickly the news might be spread:
Tonight, the first night on which Israelites have received these instructions, is May 27, 2006. Do as you’re told and in one week from tonight, 183 Israelite boys will be armed with pennyguns. Two weeks from tonight, 2,380 Israelite boys will be armed. Three weeks from tonight, 30,941 Israelite boys, and four weeks from tonight, just three days before the summer solstice, 402,234 Israelite boys will be armed with pennyguns. Well in advance of the start of next school year, all the Israelite boys in North America, if not the world, will be armed with pennyguns. Never again will we cower amidst the masses of the Roman and Canaanite children.
All they have to do is each invite thirteen Israelite boys into their backyards after Shabbos and deliver the instructions to them just as Gurion has delivered them to them. Simple. Elegant. A little frightening.
Some time into to the book Gurion learns that his original set of instructions, Uplan, has been amended slightly and renamed simply ‘The Instructions’ but this is not why Levin’s novel is called The Instructions. These were simply Gurion’s first instructions, his first scripture, followed by ‘Story of Stories’ which is, in essence, just a school essay written in March 2005 in which he tells the story of his origins. No, The Instructions purports to be a document called ‘The Instructions,’ word-processed by Gurion, then “translated and retranslated from the Hebrew and the English by Eliyahu of Brooklyn and Emmanuel Liebman,” before being published by McSweeney’s in two sections: “The Side of Damage” and “The Gurionic War.” It is now being reprinted in the UK by Canonagte.
Despite his air of religious superiority Gurion is not a frummer – he doesn’t sport a fedora and tzitzit – opting for a hoodie instead. And that’s the odd thing about the narration here. Although a scholar and a prodigy, he’s nevertheless still a ten-year-old boy and often his choice of language betrays that fact. Gentiles will have difficulty with all the Jewish expressions in the text; the irreligious with have trouble with all the biblical stuff (what exactly does Gurion mean when he talks about Canaanites, for example?); but the slang adopted by Gurion and his school friends is something most will struggle with: if someone is ‘dental’ he means they’re crazy (see footnote though); ‘kaufman’ indicates kookiness; ‘gooze’ is either nasal mucus or saliva. Context helps in most cases but not all.
In her lengthy (and most helpful) report on Gurion, which we get to read in full at the beginning of Chapter 7 and which serves as something of a plot summary, his caseworker identifies three distinct styles of speech used by Gurion:
1. A highly refined, organised, and even scholarly English rife with dialectic that is vocalised at breakneck pace, as if Gurion is highly irritated.
2. A syntactically complicated, analytical style that makes use of both clinical and idiolectic vocabulary, is often peppered with biblical references and is vocalised either a) slowly, explanatorily/revelatory, as if Gurion were soliloquising by the footlights; or b) at the aforementioned breakneck pace.
3. A clipped manner of speaking that mixes the dialectic speech and vocabulary of #1 with the vocabulary of #2, while also incorporating the slang and imperative tonality of a street-thug. This code is vocalised in any number of ways, often in as many as three or four within the span of a single utterance.
What she also notes is that members of the group that belong to what she dubs “the Maccabeean Collective” do not simply mimic his chosen style of expression at the time, but “they engage [in] it convincingly, i.e. they don’t just adopt Gurion’s lexicon (which adoption could certainly be ‘faked,’ i.e., just because someone pronounces a word doesn’t mean they understand what it signifies), but his syntax (unfakably analytic).”
The bottom line here, for the reader, is that most of the conversations that involve Gurion, whether with his fellow students, his headmaster, his parents or rabbis, become lengthy (both in overall length and in the length of individual utterances many of which can last a half-page or longer), intricate and convoluted. Even the simplest thing is never taken on face value and is open to debate.
All in all, despite its mammoth length, not much happens in The Instructions and much of the book consists of these lengthy interchanges waiting outside the headmaster’s office, sitting at the dinner table with his parents, on the bus on the way home or while waiting with Flowers who many assume to be his father if not an imaginary friend (at least that’s his caseworker’s opinion). Gurion doesn’t get dropped off home. His parents have arranged for him to be left with the novelist, motel owner, and ex-lawyer Flowers, who serves as something of a beta reader for The Instructions. Flowers forbids Gurion “to portray him as a wise old black man who gave life-lessons to an Israelite boy.” “I think you best not harp on about being the Messiah,” Flowers tells him. “[L]eak it in slowly while you’re hooking everyone, and then Blast!” So, something of a Yoda/Master Miyagi then too. He seems, however, less in thrall with the boy than Gurion’s parents and yet all of them treat this messiah-thing as just a phase he is going though.
Is it such an unreasonable thing for any Jewish kid to have a messiah complex? In interview, Levin admits the thought had crossed his mind growing up:
When I was a little kid, for a little longer than was reasonable, I thought it was possible that I was the Messiah. But I’m not the only person who thought they were the Messiah. I’m not in the minority when it comes to young Jewish boys, especially in America. It’s part of our culture. You have people telling you, “You’re the smartest and the handsomest!”
It is tempting to think that Gurion is mentally ill, broken, damaged in some way. I suspect he might be tempted to agree with you himself. Gurion is drawn to kids who are, as he puts it, damaged. Meeting Eliyahu of Brooklyn, a Hasidic new arrival at Aptakisic – who is both shrewd, damaged and an Israelite (within minutes of his arrival he ensures he’s under Gurion’s wing) – causes Gurion to reflect that “Everyone I liked who wasn't damaged was a scholar. Rather, everyone I liked who wasn't a scholar was damaged. Or maybe the first way. The stress kept shifting.” His scriptures are primarily for “all the Israelites,” but also for “anyone who's on the side of damage.” In his heart of hearts, Gurion realises he can't lead both the chosen and the damaged, but as a member of both groups he refuses to choose: the Side of Damage forms around him and simple assumes him to be the leader. They, however, are not his only followers. In all the schools he has attended prior to this, scholars have been drawn to him and he now has hundreds of young, pennygun-toting disciples for want of a better word who address him as “Rabbi” and are at his beck and call.
At its core though The Instructions is a love story – the moment of the first kiss between June as she prefers to be called and Gurion is simply wonderful ("I can't tell my face from her face.”) – but you have to dig through a lot of verbiage to get to it; still it’s there. When Gurion, who is exceptionally open with his parents, tells his mother that he is now in love with Eliza June Watermark, Tamar pronounces her name “the single most goyishe” [un-Jewish] she's ever heard. June is not in the Cage – he runs into her while waiting to see the headmaster and it’s pretty much love at first sight for both of them – but, like Gurion, June is also a troubled but talented young girl. When June reveals that she's a Unitarian, Gurion is upset and angry, but decides, partly on the strength of their matching birthmarks that are “an abbreviation of Adonai's best written name,” to convert her; since Adonai neither yells “No” nor paralyses him during the impromptu ceremony, he assumes he has God’s approval and pronounces June an Israelite. This is often how Gurion gauges the rightness or wrongness of his decisions. He’s not expecting God’s voice to boom from the heavens but when he stalls he takes that to be a sign from God. He never says, “Let God strike me down if such-and-such happens,” but it’s that kind of mentality. The thing about Gurion is that he has a very Jewish view of how his love should develop. As Gurion supposes he must be proclaimed Messiah before doing what Messiah does, so he comes to understand he must declare his love for June Watermark before being in love.
The real problem I had with The Instructions, bar its length (and since the size of the book has raised its ugly head again, can I just go on record and say that no book needs to be 1030 pages in length, I don’t care who wrote it or what it’s about?), was trying to decide if Gurion is a good guy, a bad guy or a deluded guy. Was he a young messiah or a young Charles Manson? The basketball team and their fan club, the Shovers, are the force to reckon with at Aptakisic. Gurion dreams of leading a revolt among his fellow misfits, while constantly getting distracted by the big questions: Why does he keep getting into fights in spite of proclaiming himself a man of peace? Kids fight, yes, even I got into fights when I was ten years old, but the viciousness of Gurion’s assaults escalates and I found myself uncomfortable with what begins to happen and unwilling to excuse him or the mob that takes its lead from him. Very few religions promote violence and yet name any religion that has not got caught up in violence at some time or other and often as the aggressor? Holy wars are still wars whatever way you look at them.
The Instructions is not an easy read. Some parts are, but I lost my way many times in its labyrinthine depths. At times it captivated me, but as I got further and further into it I became more and more frustrated and, then, like dropping off a cliff, we hit page 769 and things start to speed up and then, on page 871 it’s like we’ve fallen off a cliff and we continue to fall until we smash into the CODA on page 1021 and everything dissolves in a puddle of confusion, at least I was confused, but by then all I wanted to do was finish the damn book and be done with it, so I’m perhaps doing those final few pages a disservice here, but whether Gurion escapes following the so-called 11/17 Miracle or ends up in the hands of Mossad (the national intelligence agency of Israel), I don’t think we’re supposed to know for sure, just like stories were told about what happened to the Christian Messiah after his death, if, indeed, he did die, because Gurion certainly believes that he cannot.
Books on this scale tend to be epic in their scope – I know there are exceptions like Joyce’s Ulysses – but truly The Instructions is only as long as it is because of Gurion’s/Levin’s obsession with minutiae. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing; it certainly feels like a Jewish thing. Reviews of it (the Internet is awash with them and really doesn’t need this one) are mostly positive but with reservations. If I had to boil all of my qualms down to a single expression I would have to describe The Instructions as a flawed masterpiece. I’m sure that I missed much of its subtlety but I caught enough to realise that on top of a great deal of time, a great deal of thought has gone into this huge volume. It is littered with cultural references and religious allusions many of which – perish the thought – you will probably only get on a second read. In one instance, the Hebrew word for charity, tzedakah, is confused with pop singer Neil Sedaka – I missed that one – but I did pick up on the fact that Eliyahu was there in the role of Elijah who the scriptures say has to come to herald the Messiah.
Reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads are across the board but there are more favourable reviews than negative; I won’t get into a debate about how there are too many 5-star ratings out there in general. The papers have also been mixed, although I think ME Collins’ comment in the Chicago Sun-Times saying that, “Levin has formed a world motivated equally by moral fervour that gropes at profundity but really just re-enacts every episode of Hogan's Heroes, if Hogan had been 10 and a yeshiva boy,” was a both bit harsh and inaccurate. I also suspect that age might be a more important factor in how people view this book than some. When I first read Catcher in the Rye as a young teenager I was blown away by it; twenty years later I was mostly underwhelmed and not nearly as sympathetic towards the character of Holden and this is something that Levin notes too:
When you read that when you’re younger, he’s just so cool, he’s dreamy, right? But then you’re older and you’re like wow, he’s kind of a prick, but he’s also more pitiful. As I’ve gotten older, I love that book. I’ve read it a million times, like most good Americans, but when you first read it you sort of don’t see how horrifying the world is from where he stands. And then when you’re a little older, as an adult, you see it’s rich with fucked-upness. And that’s the genius of Salinger. And he does that with Franny and Zooey, too.
I am fifty-two years of age. I have little patience for ten-year-olds of any race, gender, nationality, religious persuasion or intellectual ability.
Bottom line: would I recommend this book? Yes. Would I read him again? Most definitely, yes. Would I read him again if he wrote another 1000-page book? No way in hell.
Adam Levin's stories have appeared in Tin House, McSweeney's, and Esquire. Winner of the 2003 Tin House/Summer Literary Seminars Fiction Contest and the 2004 Joyce Carol Oates Fiction Prize, Levin holds an MA in Clinical Social Work from the University of Chicago and an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. He lives in Chicago, where he teaches writing at Columbia College and The School of the Art Institute.
His next book will be a collection of short stories which he spoke about in an interview on Bookslut:
What can you tell us about your next book, Hot Pink? And what kind of project will you tackle after that? Another novel?
Hot Pink is a collection of short stories, many of which were published over the last ten years in places like Tin House and McSweeney's Quarterly. They are not "interconnected," and so they aren't terribly easy to discuss as a group. There's a story about a legless girl who's in love with a girl who has both legs, a story about a doll that pukes, a story about some violent mimes, a story about a comedian with dementia, and then six or seven other stories about none of the above. They range from more conventional first-person narratives to less conventional second-person narratives, and the majority of them took between one and three years to write.
I don't know for sure what's coming after Hot Pink, but I'm thinking a very short novel.
 The first sentence is now “Benji Nakamook thought we should waterboard each other, me and him and Vincie Portite.”
 Betsy: Can we get a comment on “bancer” and maybe “dental”? Cohen’s review said you use “dental” for mental but that’s too easy. Someone said you said dental means suck, but suck means suck so what does dental mean?
Levin: Dental does not fuckin’ mean mental.
Jack W: With regard to “dental,” etc. … was there any inspiration gleaned from the Anti-Dentite Seinfeld episode, where the dentist converts to Judaism purportedly for the jokes? I watched that episode probably ten times trying to connect it while reading TI a la Dark Side of the Moon and Wizard of Oz.
Levin: Anti-dentite! That was a good one — maybe. Not knowingly, though.
 Julie Steinberg, ‘Adam Levin on His 1,000-Page Epic, “The Instructions,”’ The Wall Street Journal, 1 November 2010