After reading Joshua Cohen's massive apocalyptic novel Witz, I decided that any future Jewish epics were going to have to start from zero. Well, Adam Levin's equally massive apocalyptic novel The Instructions is an attempt to do exactly that.
Gurion Maccabee, age ten, is determined to be the antithesis of the classic Jewish boy genius:
I was not the little kid with the big imagination who half-grown nice Jewish boys star in their novels to attempt to make readers feel special and congratulated. That kid's a drip. That kid has fantasies behind his closed eyes in order to escape the facts on the ground, and somehow he doesn't know it.
Instead of fantasies, Gurion has badass hand-to-hand combat skills and a Manichean moral philosophy. Like a pint-size version of Rorschach in Watchmen, he's determined to scrawl his own design – the revaluation of all Jewish values – on the world.
When The Instructions opens, Gurion has already gotten kicked out of three schools for miscellaneous violent acts and sentenced to a "zero tolerance" program called the Cage. Still defiant, he packs his writing assignments with messianic rhetoric and stealthily organizes his classmates, both current and former, for revolution.
The titular instructions, distributed samizdat style, are a 23-point guide to manufacturing pennyguns, ersatz slingshots made from soda bottles and rubber balloons that allow Gurion's followers to "hurt things far beyond arm's reach." Here's an abridged demo of how to use one, created by the author:
Gurion describes the facts on the ground, both inside and outside the Cage, with obsessive attention to the trivialities of junior high school, but his goals remain hazy for the first half of the book ("The Side of Damage"). The concept of "perfect justice" is mentioned a time or two, and suggested to involve the overthrow of "the arrangement" that restricts the Cage's inmates. Here our hero shows his true age, I think: in spite of his command of Torah, Talmud, and the collected works of Philip Roth, he has trouble identifying real grievances beyond things like jock bullies and a sadistic detention monitor. But that doesn't stop him from trying to justify epic violence against such targets.
The actual epic violence comes in the second half of the book ("The Gurionic War"). Various school and home pressures conspire to convert Gurion and his followers into proto-terrorists. There's an astonishing scene where he almost gets charmed by Bam Slokum, king of the jocks (and the Ozymandias figure in the book, I feel):
They rule with their presence, these king-types, I thought. They dissolve, with their immediacy, all of your enmity. The Law, like the rest, like everything else, gets blotted out white by their glowing charm. You want, when they're near, to follow their rules, to please them, be like them; you want to be like them in order to please them. That's how you get arranged. It's how you go robot.
To salvage his humanity, Gurion beats the president of Bam's fan club unconscious.
There's a Dr. Manhattan figure in The Instructions too: it's none other than Philip Roth himself, "the last great Jew." Roth makes a brief but potent intrusion into the book at the climax, and his conversation with Gurion is a grandly entertaining contest of wills. "I write scripture," Gurion says near its end. "It's different than fiction. You have to read it different. It matters what I do."
I don't make comparisons to Watchmen in jest. In addition to a few character-level parallels, The Instructions shares with the other book a set of deep concerns about justice and the use of violence to administer it. Whose force is legitimate, and whose is criminal? How much collateral damage is acceptable? Both books are also equivocal about the answers to such questions, but while Watchmen uses a half-dozen different perspectives to contend against each other, The Instructions uses a single perspective – Gurion's – to contend against itself.
Gurion commits to a number of slightly different moral theses over the book's thousand-plus pages. All offer justifications for doing serious hurt to his enemies, and all spur him and his followers to escalate their cruelty to their chosen enemies ("robots"). The focus on violence is central to both Gurion's attempt to reboot Judaism and Levin's attempt to reboot American Jewish fiction: the sentimentality and nostalgia of half-grown nice Jewish boy novelists (Jonathan Safran Foer again?) are replaced by the blood-drenched authority of holy scripture.
You can order The Instructions via McSweeney's Books