Reviewed by Nathan Weatherford
The Instructions is the easiest 1,000+-page book I've ever read -- not in terms of fascinating character dynamics or thematic complexity, which are both here in spades, but in the sheer compulsion I felt to keep reading, to delve deeper into Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee's wonderfully intricate psyche and the effect it has on all the children (and adults) around him.
Gurion, the protagonist, is a 10-year-old boy who is preternaturally smart for his age. Adam Levin provides him with a fantastically eclectic voice, ranging all the way from typical childish slang, made up by Gurion and his friends, to perfectly formal diction more appropriate for religious tracts than normal conversation. This wide vocal range is appropriate, as Gurion follows his own very strict interpretation of Judaism to the letter and, as such, isn't convinced that he's the Messiah -- but he isn't convinced that he won't become the Messiah, either. His struggle to determine this for himself forms the backbone of the plot, which takes place over four days spent at school, at home, and on car/bus rides between the two.
You're probably thinking, Four days? Levin needed over 1,000 pages to tell us about four days in the life of a 10-year-old? But that's probably my favorite aspect of The Instructions. All novels bend time in one way or another, but Levin takes such obvious joy in exploring Gurion's thought processes that, in reality, thoughts that might only take seconds are here found gushing over page after page. Gurion even makes explicit reference to this near the end of the novel. He's narrated the entire book in hindsight, after all the events have taken place, and realizes how his sense of time is in flux:
...if this all seems too complicated a stream of thoughts for me to think in the moment my entire understanding of the previous six months of my life was getting re-arranged, that's because it was. Too complicated. I didn't think these things then, not all of them, not nearly, and certainly not in this order.
The dramatic effect of these constant paragraphs and pages dedicated to thought-by-thought exegeses is to firmly enmesh the reader in Gurion's head, to begin to process the book in the same way that Gurion thinks. It's also an effective way for Levin to make the influence that Gurion obtains over the people around him somewhat ironic -- his voice when speaking to others is always full of confidence and ready for debate, while his internal thought processes are constantly running full speed, a disarray that he's continually trying to form into a coherent structure. I found it incredibly absorbing (and Gurion isn't even my favorite character in the book).
Don't let all this "thought process" talk make you think that this is a slow-going affair. Once the plot gets rolling, it doesn't let up -- it took me half the time to read the last half of the book than it did the first. The Instructions is one of those novels that you pick up and read until you realize that you should probably go to work/eat/sleep (or until your wrist falls off -- this thing is a brick). If you've been meaning to tackle a longer novel for a while, you'll get through this one quickly. Just make sure to leave it out on a conspicuous table so your friends can be impressed, too.
Books mentioned in this post