Adam Levin's debut novel The Instructions' is bold, fast, funny and ambitious
Oct. 28, 2010 at 5:28 a.m.
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By Christopher Borrelli
CHICAGO - My initial reaction to Adam Levin is surprise. He's a guy's guy, not pretentious, falsely modest or writerly. He's not a nervous wreck, insecure or overly serious.
He says "dude" a lot.
It doesn't track.
Here is a 33-year-old Chicago resident who says he was a troubled adolescent with a messiah complex. At a glance, his first novel, which just came out, suggests gravity and self-importance. It is 1,030 pages long and weighs three pounds. It's called "The Instructions," and it's intended to be read as such: Jewish scripture written by the protagonist in 2013, recounting miraculous events that occurred over four days in Chicago Public Schools in 2006. Yet it's also fast and funny, not unlike Levin himself - full of nervous energy and promise.
Indeed, McSweeney's, Levin's San Francisco-based publisher (founded by Dave Eggers), is so optimistic about it that the book got a 12,000-copy first printing (generous for a novel so large); then it became a buzz book, landing on New York Magazine's list of the most anticipated titles of the fall season.
All of which obscures what's interesting about it: "The Instructions" is nothing less than a bold (and somewhat meta) reimagining of Jewish fiction. As Levin's fourth-grade hero, a fledgling writer himself, explains: "I am not even remotely interested in writing a two-page short story about made-up Jewish people eating dinner." And neither is Levin.
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After my initial impression, I think I discover a quirk, a recognizably author-like trait: Levin won't let me see inside his apartment. He won't invite me in. He says he was a smoker for a long time and has a parrot that he is protective of and his apartment smells and looks like "an old man's apartment," so out of embarrassment or protectiveness or both, he politely declines.
A while later, I called George Saunders, the acclaimed short-story writer. He was Levin's creative writing adviser at Syracuse University. I tell him about the apartment thing. He gets it right away. "When I started to take off as a writer, there wasn't as much this sense you have now of being part of your own marketing. Now it can feel like people are de-authoring you, turning you into a personality," he says. "I bet Adam doesn't want to be de-authored. He has this book that could have just as well been published as a good, tiny book. But he has big ideas and needs to remind himself not to sway."
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Levin and I slump into a booth at the back of Atomix, a coffeehouse a few blocks from his apartment. He talks while I eat a bagel and listen. These bagels are fantastic, I blurt out, interrupting. "I know," he says, "I was lobbying them for years to carry New York Bagel & Bialy bagels. And now they do." He's like that, direct, pushy. He has a bullet for a head, little hair on top but stubble beneath. His voice is quick and frantic, loaded with F- and S-bombs. I say McSweeney's did a predictably nice job with the book design of "The Instructions" - so much so it's hard imagining an e-book.
He says: "My parents have a (expletive) Kindle. They buy (expletive) like crazy and I don't know how they even (expletive) read it all, but if a whole (expletive) load of (expletive) nice middle-class folks will (expletive) buy my book and not (expletive) read it, I guess I'll never (expletive) know. But no, you're right, the book is a sweet (expletive) object. And the book itself is about, to some extent, its own (expletive) bookness. Not that I'm going all (expletive) Holden Caulfield and saying don't (expletive) make a movie out of my (expletive) book. But the e-reader thing is a choice. Make a (expletive) Venn diagram. There will be the people who would read this book in print. And there will be the (expletive) people who won't read it unless it's on Kindle. I'm (expletive) happy for those people who won't read it unless it's on (expletive) Kindle. Their choice. I'm no (expletive) fascist. But there's that third segment, the ones who would (expletive) read it in print but don't because they own a Kindle, so why (expletive) (carry around) a book? Those (expletive) people make me (expletive) sad."
"Anyway," he adds, "Gurion would want you to read it as a book, on paper."
That would be Gurion Maccabee, his 10-year old protagonist. To make a very long story short: Gurion is a charismatic Torah scholar and may be the Messiah. He falls in love, fights, rallies his young followers in a suburban private school, then leads an unnerving citywide rebellion that spreads through Chicago. The narrative overflows with e-mails, class essays, TV transcripts - even a note on the (fictional) Hebrew translation. It owes a debt to David Foster Wallace's epic "Infinite Jest, "but even more so, it genuflects at the influence of Philip Roth, Gurion's hero, who appears as a character. Levin mailed a copy of the book's galley to Roth but never heard back.
Which is fine, he said.
He's having "a conversation with Jewish literature," not Jewish writers themselves. And as the Village Voice pointed out in its review ("a feast for the Che Guevara shirt-wearing ... love-struck kid in all of us"), Levin's scope is broader than traditional Jewish literature, drawing equally from "Animal Farm," ''The Outsiders," ''The Chocolate War," Kurt Vonnegut.
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Levin grew up in Buffalo Grove, Ill. His father owns an insurance company and his mother moved here at 17, from Israel. "There was a period when I was young when I really wanted to be the Jewish Messiah," he says. "I thought I could be. I was convinced I was the smartest and toughest. It was important that I could beat up everyone in my grade."
His family moved to Highland Park during his freshman year of high school. After a year in public school, he transferred to the Roycemore School in Evanston. "The truth is, I was kind of a bastard until 16 or so," he says. "I did drugs. I got into a lot of fights. I got so bad I considered dropping out to play bass - striking out on my own as a bassist, as if there were one-man bass bands!"
Joe Becker, headmaster at Roycemore, remembers a different Levin, a mellow, bookish kid, "a quiet leader, who could be persuasive," who lobbied him to create a course on world religions, which Roycemore did. Levin attended University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Chicago, then applied to the ultracompetitive creative writing program at Syracuse University - which accepts six students a year out of 500 applicants.
"He accepted our acceptance with an eight-page e-mail," Saunders remembers. "But it was clear Adam had already found what good writers find: a direct channel between their personality and (writing) style. He writes the way he is at a party. Teaching a student like this, you feel fire catch, then step out of the way."
The rest sounds blessed, unnaturally ordained: Levin moved back to Chicago in 2003, with 300 pages of "The Instructions" that he had written at Syracuse. He continued on the book in his Chicago apartment, alternating between nine-hour-a-day writing jags and teaching writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College.
Saunders recalls talking to literary agent Susan Golomb at a party for New Yorker magazine.
"It was right around the time (Jonathan) Franzen's 'The Corrections' was coming out," Golomb remembers, "which was a physically big book but an accessible book too. I was concerned that the publishing house wasn't promoting it enough to my mother, to people in the 'burbs. That probably convinced George to trust me with a guy like Adam."
And so, Franzen's agent also became Levin's agent.
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As for Levin, after initially worrying about the book's length, he decided at page 700 that the book would be as long as it needed to be. "If I have arrived at a stance on literature, I guess, it's this: I want books to be huge. Not page counts - I want giant stories that end big," he says. "Because as I get older, I'm getting bored, with domestic fiction, especially. And I want to read writers who are bold, who go for it all. I want all the significance, everything."
McSweeney's editor Eli Horowitz agreed: "The reason most books are not as big as 'The Instructions' is not necessarily because books are not supposed to be as big as 'The Instructions.' It's because publishers are afraid of them and authors get worried people won't read them. To get past that and write to the length you truly believe you should write to requires a mixture of courage and obliviousness that Adam has. He's brave, and when it works well, it's thrilling."
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A few months later, writer Salvador Plascencia, a close friend of Levin's, received the final edition. "I had read his short stories, and, geographically, those are far more vast. Reading ('The Instructions') I was surprised how contained its world was. I mean, he spends 30 pages having a character pry open a door! Which should be stupid, but it works, and it's exciting - how does anyone do that? I mean, it's like he's blessed."
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