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The Instructions by Adam Levin

The Instructions (original 2010; edition 2011)

by Adam Levin

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3701529,102 (4.14)16
Title:The Instructions
Authors:Adam Levin
Info:McSweeney's (2011), Edition: First Trade Paper Edition, Paperback, 1026 pages
Collections:Read but unowned

Work details

The Instructions by Adam Levin (2010)

  1. 10
    Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (hairball)
    hairball: If you liked Infinite Jest, you will like The Instructions, but even if you didn't like IJ, you should try it.
  2. 00
    Call it Sleep by Henry Roth (hairball)

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I know this much is true.

Or I think this. Suspect this. Realize this.

I know that this is the childhood of Infinite Jest before it was exposed to its titular component. I know that nothing is sacred, least of all childhood, which suffers on its sanctified pedestal. I know ideology and theology and coprology and the razors they stretch tight around the skin. I know how the blades slip into the throat in childhood, and how the ability to spit them at another screams itself out in adulthood. I know that ability, to harness your damage to your own purposes, to be the true determination of being an adult.

I know that if you act like a child, you will be treated as a child. I know that if you are a child, and act like an adult, you will be disregarded as a child. I know that if you are a child, you will be hit as an adult. I know that if you are a child, you will be molested as an adult. I know that if you are a child, you will be beaten as an adult. I know that if you are a child, you will be raped as an adult. I know that if you are a child, you will be blamed for the actions of the father as an adult, you will be blamed for the beliefs of your mother as an adult, and you will be condemned for your skin and your creed and your being. As an adult.

I know that if you are a child, and act like an adult, you will be feared beyond belief.

I know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I know that the road to hell is the path of least resistance. I know that the road to life is the path of most conviction, the path of least analysis, the path of tropes and logos and prejudices shortchanged into social slogans that lubricate your lifestyle and damage everything in its wake.

I know that WE DAMAGE WE is tennis.

I know that life is beautiful and love is beautiful. I know that a sound mind in a sound body is beautiful. I know that knowledge is beautiful, and that conviction is beautiful, and that reasoning is beautiful. I know that appreciation of and willingness towards these qualities is beautiful.

I know that misguided praise of all this is as equally damaging as condemnation.

I know that a child is not empty. I know that an adult is not full. I know that no one can truly say where one ends and the other begins, and anyone who uses age as reasoning confuses the length of life experience with humanity. Anyone who uses cooperation with a ideological system, which grinds and grinds and grinds, as reasoning confuses mirroring the crowd with humanity. Anyone who uses might as reasoning does not know humanity. In other words, fuck them. They know nothing.

I know that we try, and we try, and we try. I know that we bleed, I know that we fall, I know that we suffer. I know that we are objectified. I know that we objectify. I know that we make others suffer, we make others fall, we make others bleed. I know that we try, and we try, and we try.

I do not know the ending. No one does. Perhaps it will all be for something. Perhaps not. Does it matter, truly? Does closure really matter that much to you?

Who am I kidding. Of course it does. We would not be having this conversation otherwise. ( )
1 vote Korrick | Apr 8, 2013 |
Okay so Cait totally splooshes over this and it gets, y'know, all the attention and all. I could try it out.
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
A song so appropriate it was referenced in the book: You And Whose Army

I don't think that I will ever be able to properly review this book. I'm definitely unable to muster up enough energy to try doing so now. I'm a strange mix of exhausted and exhilarated - maybe exhausted because of my exhilaration? 200 pages of Damage Proper will do that to you. All I know is that I'm exhausted and exhilarated and bleary eyed and heartbroken. And I love this book. No it is not a perfect book, not by a long shot, but I love it despite its imperfections. Everything good here is so damn good that it made any and all flaws trivial in comparison, even the abruptness of the ending, which would probably be my biggest complaint if I felt inclined to complain about the book. But I don't, so I won't. The characters though? They were the best freaking part. See, my chest got all tight just thinking about them again...

ETA: I should also add that the first 300 or so pages took me a month to read due to very limited reading time. The next 700 pages took me about 4 days. Once I was able to settle in to the story, I found it read insanely fast. I would blink my eyes and somehow another 100 pages had flown by. If anything is going to deter you from reading this, don't let it be its size. ( )
  cait815 | Apr 1, 2013 |
I finished this awhile ago but I couldn't wrap my head around the ending and before I knew it was on a trip to Portland and just wasn't thinking of it.

Ok, so basically this chronicles a very short time in the life of a young Jewish teenager in a Chicago suburb who thinks he might be (and wishes to be) the Messiah. A matter of days turns into over 1000 pages so you can imagine the depth of his philosophies. He's incredibly intellectual, is really obsessed with Philip Roth, and is held as a Rabbi by all of his school mates at various schools, private Jewish and public schools for his intellectual prowess and his advanced insightful take on many stories in the Torah.

In alot of ways, his advanced thinking is completely unbelievable but rather intoxicating nonetheless. His level of analysis is something to behold and wrap your head around over and over again.

The unfortunate thing is that he's witnessed some acts of violence against his people (he wouldn't call them fellow Jews, though, they are to him Israelites which are elevated from mere people of the Jewish faith) In any case, these acts of violence have scarred him a bit, causing him to issue a violent ulpan about creating homeade weapons to all of his Israelite disciples. His violent nature, however misunderstood, has caused him to be placed in a higher security school prison for delinquents and those with cognitive impairments called THE CAGE. Of course, that sort of treatment isn't going to work at all for someone like him and rebellion can be very ugly indeed.

Gurion also struggles with the sense of love for his father who seems to turn his back on his people to fight for the rights of Non-Israelite freedom of speech, which causes discord in the community and within his family unit.

Oh yeah, and Gurion (this intellectual protagonist) is in love with a non -Israelite girl but Adonai wouldn't let him fall in love with a non Israelite of course so he can just convert her.

So, I'm going to talk a little bit about the ending here. If you'd like to read it for yourself, please skip the rest. You have been warned. No whining!

I have tried to wrap my head around this ending which is extremely violent. I work in Chicago Public Schools so this kind of scene is a bit traumatic for me in that way. It's fantastical, over the top, and literally caused me one of the most vivid nightmares of my life. Besides extreme violence, there's a miracle of sorts and alot of presuppositions which lead you to wonder which is really the truth and almost set up different choose your own adventure scenarios about what may have actually happened. There's also a sense of betrayal and keenness of revenge from non Israelite students..anyone who feels they have been wronged as in a violent sort of atonement.

This is my take on it, finally, after pondering it. You may choose not to agree with me and I don't know at all if this was what Levin was aiming for. But this is the only thing that makes sense to me. In some ways, I see Gurion and the ending as a sort of microcasm of what is happening between Israel and Palestine. In other words, violence has begotten violence and it has all turned a little ugly with no mensches in sight. What we have is something alarming and chaotic, completely indecipherable. Gurion feels that he and those he loves are being persecuted and that, as a chosen person, this is wrong. His mother also feels strongly this way. The conflict with his father probably only adds to the keen sense of his own inner persecution. Gurion feels he is in the fight of his life. He stops being rational, only seeing the wrongs and dividing those into the Israelites and non Israelites. Even within these categories, complexities exist such as his friend with a cognitive disability who in the middle of the utter violent turmoil ends up shouting the lyrics to Radiohead's "You and Whose Army?" It's a strange kind of apocalypse..the kind that happens more than the real one because life still continues whether it's been changed or, to use a more appropriate word for the novel, damaged.

There's some bits about property damage all throughout the book but the major theme of damage evolves as a concept into human damage, even world damage. I'm not sure the moral of the story needs to be anything but the very fact that any act of violence can lead to a much larger progression of events or can damage the human spirit. I think this in and of itself is a profound message. However, I'm still not ready to make complete sense of the ending the way it's written either. It's message becomes emotionalized and unclear within itself and perhaps that was the point. On the other hand, it still sticks out like a major flaw and makes the reader feel in a state of shock. ( )
  kirstiecat | Mar 31, 2013 |
I've been wanting to review this for a while, but I feel like anything I would write would just be the verbal equivalent of those five stars up there, plus a exhortation to keep reading even if the narrator's voice and the pimply middle school stuff put you off.

I've realized, though, that what I really want to do is write a retrospective analysis of the book. This will require spoilers. I know that there's this notion out there that if a book is sufficiently good or literary or whatever, spoilers don't matter, but that's BS. A good author will arrange every aspect of the reader's experience with care, and that includes the way in which plot details come to light. So, here's a warning: the spoiler cut below is for real -- if you haven't read the book and plan to, don't click it.

The Side of Damage

For most of the time I spent reading The Instructions, I had no idea what to make of Gurion Maccabee's beliefs. They seemed vague and under-specified, a nebulous mixture of opportunistically employed Torah references, cliquish adolescent edginess ("The Side of Damage") and generic anti-authoritarianism ("robots," "the Arrangement"). Was the apparent inanity of Gurion's beliefs a flaw in the book? Did Levin think this stuff was profound? Probably not. So why not fill in the holes in Gurion's worldview? Was Levin just indulging in adolescent edginess himself -- creating an ambiguous ideology to win the hearts of ambiguity-loving lit-nerds, to inspire one of the standard "the emperor has no clothes" / "you either get it or you don't" wars that crop up around any weird/ambiguous/"pretentious" work of art?

It wasn't until I finished the book that I realized what was really going on. In retrospect, it seemed utterly obvious. (I apologize if most of the stuff in this essay seems utterly obvious -- I can be pretty slow sometimes.) What's going on is this: The Instructions is an exploration of the messianic personality. If you look at successful cult leaders (including cult leaders like Jesus whose cults went on to become bona fide religions) in the real world, they always seem to have a charisma, an inspirational energy, that in some sense comes before whatever creed they actually stand for. Their force of character is such that it appears (to the faithful) to justify in itself whatever they happen to say. The actual sayings always tend to be kind of vague. I mean, try to read the New Testament as a story about a guy who came up with a coherent and explicable religious worldview and went around advocating for it. You can't do it! Because it's clearly a story about a guy who had the force of personality to acquire a bunch of devoted followers, and then went around making enigmatic remarks to them. The apostles weren't convinced by Jesus' worldview, whatever that was; they were convinced by Jesus' Jesus-ness, his blinding messianic force of character.

Depending on who you are, you will either take this vagueness as 1) an indication of the inarticulability of true mystical revelation or 2) a sign that messiah figures are cynical bastards who deliberately keep their views ambiguous so that they can be twisted in whichever direction suits their desires at any given moment. These may not be mutually exclusive -- after all, there's something especially effective about liars who believe their own lies. In any case, option #2 sheds some light on Gurion's own brand of vagueness.

Take the phrase "The Side of Damage," for instance. What does this mean? "Damage" is one of the central terms (perhaps the central term) of the Gurionic vocabulary. As far as I can tell it simply means something like "violence," except more broad -- covering, for instance, both the destruction of inanimate objects and the causing of psychological (as opposed to physical) harm to human beings. In past participle form -- "damaged" -- it means something like "suffering the lasting effects of trauma." Many of the kids in the Cage, the lockdown program at Gurion's junior high school, are "damaged." So what does it mean to be on the side of damage? Well, it could mean being on the side of causing damage -- on the side of causing harm. It could also mean being on the side of the damaged. Gurion clearly seems to mean both of these things, and encourages the conflation of the two by his idiosyncratic use of the word "damage." This basic ambiguity, and Gurion's broader refusal to state exactly what he means by "the side of damage" or even what he means by the word "damage" in any given case, are very dangerous. They allow "the side of damage" to mean, simply, whatever Gurion Maccabee wants it to mean at the moment. If you're on the side of damage -- and if you're damaged, why wouldn't you be? -- then you're with Gurion, and Gurion tell you what "the side of damage" stands for. The leader's messianic will comes before any specific creed.

And of course the very undefined quality of the Side of Damage, combined with that edgy suggestion (just a suggestion -- so always deniable) of anti-authoritarian violence -- is catnip to adolescents just starting to form their own identities. "You either get it or you don't[, mom.]" Gurion knows his audience.

Adonai is Damaged

There is an obvious irony embedded in the ambiguous definition of "the side of damage." For damage (violence, harm, smashing and breaking things) is what creates damaged people. If you are on the side of causing damage, how can you be an advocate for the damaged, who presumably resent the damage done to them? The ambiguity is summed up in the Side's graffiti tag:


In the story, this arises as a compromise between two suggestions, "WE DAMAGE" and "DAMAGE WE," both arising from an overly literal interpretation of the statement "we are on the side of damage." Of course, these two phrases are the two sides of the Side of Damage polarity -- we cause damage, and we are damaged. Fix the grammar and WE DAMAGE WE becomes WE DAMAGE OURSELVES.

One imagines that this would be a problem for Gurion's damaged followers, though thanks to Gurion's messianic charm and verbal sleights-of-hand, he manages to keep this objection from surfacing and causing him trouble. For Gurion, though, there is no contradiction. Because although Gurion conceives of himself as an advocate for the damaged, he himself is not damaged. This is one of the purposes of all those cute scenes with Gurion and his parents -- singing in the car with his dad and so forth. Gurion comes from a happy family. There is no central moment of trauma in his past. "Damage" has not harmed him. To him damage is a good thing because it produces damaged people, and Gurion loves -- one might say romanticizes or fetishizes -- damaged people. He loves his strange friends from the Cage and would love for there to be more people like them. He doesn't feel the pain of trauma, only a fondness for the traumatized and, as their advocate, a self-righteous fury.

The last few paragraphs of The Instructions are a beautifully dark cacophany of Gurionic terms and notions bouncing off against one another as the book's whole edifice seems to fall apart. "Adonai is damaged," Gurion writes in the last paragraph. A bleak, pathetic notion. This is the core of the Gurionic worldview (to the extent that one exists). It's a mixture of the Torah and the focus on childhood trauma of modern psychiatry. God is, like us (downtrodden people that we -- "Israelites" or "the damaged" -- imagine ourselves to be), a sufferer of trauma. That's why he smites and rages and sends floods and hardens hearts. When we suffer from His damage, it makes us who we are. And when we are violent -- as the ancient Israelite leaders were, as Gurion is -- we make more people like us, like God. We are God's chosen people because we're as fucked up as He is. The cycle of violence cannot be ended without losing our identity.

It is, in its bleakness, a pretty and clever notion. But it is not clear how much relevance it has for the lives of people who are actually damaged -- as opposed to Gurion, who merely romanticizes the damaged and attaches his romantic religious ideas to them. (If he had recognized the disconnect between his idea and reality, he might have done something more valuable with it, rather than going out and preaching to the damaged. He might, say, have written a nice little novel about it.)

I Am An Israeli, Chicago Born

We are informed even before the first page -- in the fictional "publisher's note" -- that within the fictional frame, The Instructions is no ordinary novel. In fact, as we eventually learn, it is one of the central holy texts of a bizarre new religious cult. This cult, which is widely considered a terrorist organization, has a number of curious beliefs about the book -- for instance, that it was translated into Hebrew and then back into English (by two different people) and came out word-for-word identical to the original English text. They also believe that Gurion's words have magical effects upon their readers or listeners. As Eliyahu puts it in the "Translator's Note" that opens the book's second part:

Anyone who reads or listens to Gurion ben-Judah without enmity becomes more like him. E.g., before I, at the age of twelve, met Gurion, I was no doubt booksmart, even exceptionally so, but I was not on a path toward finishing college at the age of nineteen. . . . If you are with us, you will certainly witness such changes in yourself as you proceed through the scripture. I would not be too surprised were I to learn that you have already.

In any other book, this would seem ridiculous. In The Instructions, it works -- first, because the book is so long and odd that any reader who has stuck with it to page 578 might actually be in a position to believe that the book is having profound effects upon them, and second, because it fits the characters and setting perfectly. This idea that reading the book will change you, will make you smarter . . . it feels hokey, dumb, trying-too-hard, like something that a pretentious teenager would say about their first attempt at a novel. Well, yes -- The Instructions is about a religious cult started by teenagers.

This side of The Instructions -- the religious fanatic side, the side of ridiculous but earnestly held beliefs, of people who write things like "come heavy next year in Jerusalem" -- is something Gurion wants to downplay. He takes for granted that his audience (readers in the fictional version of the year 2013) will think of him as the fanatical leader of a terrorist cult. He wants to portray himself as sensitive, likable, perhaps a bit more childlike than he really is. So the book, at least in the first of its two parts, is drowning in cuteness. Funny slang, teen crushes, tender parent-child moments, trivial schoolboy concerns. It is also drowning in literariness: Gurion tosses in lots of references to bildungsromans and Jewish literature -- The Catcher in the Rye, Philip Roth, etc. -- to try to give his book the pedigree of pleasant, non-dogmatic, sensitive psychological realism. Among Gurion's two favored groups, the sentimental psychologizing of "the damaged" takes precedence over the cold ethnic partisanship of "the Israelites." The fictional audience needs all this so it can see a monster as human; the real audience needs this so it can wonder how the hell it will get from cutesy junior high bildungsroman to the terrorist stuff warned of in the publisher's note. That's the wonderful metafictional trick: the book works for both the real and fictional audiences, and it's only at the end that the real audience has reached the position that the fictional audience had at the beginning.

The Instructions uses its length very well. One of the ways it does this is by investing details with importance by letting them stand out from the vast tapestry surrounding them. Emmanuel Liebman is one such detail. In the first part of the book he appears rarely, and when he does appear Gurion says little about him, as if expecting the reader already to know who he is. Of course the fictional audience does know, because he's one of the major figures of Gurion's cult, the Scholars Fund. But Gurion also wants to downplay his role because he is part of the fanatical side of the story, the side that cannot be reined in with literary references and precocious cuteness. Liebman's presence is an unnerving hole in the story -- it indicates, to the first-time reader, that something is being left out.

The second part of the book has the following epigraph:

Emmanuel Liebman: Diaspora Judaism is what?
Terry Gross: "Diaspora Judaism is masturbation."
Emmanuel Liebman: And who'd you say you were quoting?
Terry Gross: A.B. Yehoshua.
Emmanuel Liebman: Who's that?
Terry Gross: A novelist.
Emmanuel Liebman: He sounds Israeli.
Terry Gross: He is Israeli.
Emmanuel Liebman: An Israeli
--Fresh Air with Terry Gross, 11/17/12

This tells the reader that the fanatical side of the story, the side of Liebman and the Scholars Fund, the un-literary side that does not see Gurion as a novelist, is beginning to take precedence. As literary as Gurion fancies himself to be, he is playing with forces more real and brutish and consequential than those apparently at work in his sensitive bildungsroman.

In that last paragraph, Gurion writes: "I am an Israeli, Chicago born." Here the literary pretensions unravel. Gurion makes reference to a famous young protagonist, Augie March, created by a Jewish literary writer. But, once Gurion's ideological side injects itself, the quote becomes absurd. No one -- well, no one but Gurion -- would say "I am an Israeli, Chicago born." It's simply a ridiculous, aesthetically unharmonious statement. The clash and clang and clutter of unliterary ideology ruins the literary image Gurion would like to project. He might have wanted to exculpate himself in the public view by writing a masterpiece, a humane and subtle novel -- but The Instructions is in the end not a novel at all. Ideology keeps rushing in and crushing subtlety underfoot. "I am an Israeli, Chicago born" -- this is the sound of a cult trying to justify itself by appropriating literature. An Israeli novelist?

( )
  nostalgebraist | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Levin creates a world driven equally by moral fervor and slapstick comedy. Expelled from multiple Jewish day-schools for acts of violence and backtalk, Gurion ends up in the Cage, a special lockdown program for the most hopeless cases of Aptakisic Junior High. Separated from his scholarly followers, Gurion becomes a leader with righteous aims building to a revolution of troubling intensity.… (more)

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