We Gotta Get Out of This Place

“GLORY! FREAKIN! ROAD!”: The Instructions by Adam Levin

“If I knew that I could never see her again, I would have to go crazy. Time would pass and June would become like Hashem’s revelation at Sinai, like manna, like the parting of the sea, and I’d have to suspect that maybe there never really was a June I knew, let alone a June I loved, that she was only a person I once longed to believe and failed to fully believe had ever existed. I’d tell myself lies and believe my own lies, or else I’d have to go an even worse kind of crazy.” — 10-year-old Gurion Maccabee contemplating a future without June Watermark, his girlfriend of a few days’ time

Rachel Aviv’s deft article “Which Way Madness Lies” in the December 2010 issue of Harper’s investigates the growing debate over Psychosis Risk Syndrome, a diagnosis proposed for inclusion in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, the Bible of psychiatry. Aviv solicits extremely precise soul-searching from young people who have sought clinical help for early symptoms of schizophrenia, symptoms which in their earliest stages, unfortunately, can never be as clear as day or as rigidly classifiable as the diagnosis many doctors would level. One young woman, called Anna in the article, suggests that her feelings regarding her affliction are complicated by a sense that she as an intensely self-reflective person is “somehow actively engaged in creating it.” Writes Aviv: “By naming these experiences, she worried she had brought them into being.”

Neurosis — far short of psychosis, usually — has been a subject of particular interest to culturally Jewish artists from the comedies of Woody Allen to those of Larry David, the novels of Philip Roth to those of Nathan Englander. Marvels Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, dreaming of a selfhood that lies beyond his experience of being Jewish: “It’s true, is it not? — incredible, but apparently true — there are people who feel in life the ease, the self-assurance, the simple and essential affiliation with what is going on, that I used to feel as the center fielder for the Seabees?”

In his debut novel The Instructions, Adam Levin takes neurosis to task. Isolated in Aptakisic Junior High School’s CAGE program for the most disruptive students, Gurion Maccabee believes he may well be the Jewish messiah, even if, okay, he accepts the possibility that he might not be. Clocking in at over 1,000 pages, The Instructions documents four days in the life of Gurion and his friends, Jews and Gentiles both, as they mount a revolt against Aptakisic’s oppressive power structures. The long build up culminates in a school-wide melee poised awkwardly between being funny like an 80s teen movie (think Revenge of the Nerds) and unsettling like Lord of the Flies. Even if the violence plays largely as tongue in cheek (knocked into unconsciousness, a character’s “chapter is over”), the stark reality it spins off of is impossible to forget.

Fiction’s fundamental reason for existing is to posit for a reader that the world is not as it is, or to offer to the reader who might feel that way a place in the world of actual things. A thing that can be opened and closed and set aside, before life goes on. Once, The Temple existed, and for a long time — a long, long time — believers of the Jewish persuasion have been mourning the fact of its earthly disappearance. As Philip Roth in freak flag raucous 20th century landmark Portnoy’s Complaint breathed into being a Jewish male set defiantly against the phobias of his family and fellow Jews — while also being his own phobia incarnate — so Levin offers up character and novel that at once crown and humble the longing to undo things as they are, to usher forth a more complete justice, to allow for a better world.

Often, The Instructions is strikingly brilliant. Often, The Instructions is stupendously funny. Now and again, The Instructions is undercooked, while unfailingly brimming with presence of mind. Here and there, The Instructions is too much (though if you are a fan of The Catcher in the Rye, look forward to Gurion’s penetrating, if ridiculously extemporaneous, analysis). Gurion’s Adam Levin-like verbal prowess plants him as a character firmly in the James Wood-dubbed Thomas Pynchon School of Hysterical Realism, in recognition of which Levin (never one to miss a chance for an allusion) gives a nod by way of Gurion: “Was I also cartoon-looking? I touched my nose.”

As Gurion Maccabee 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. If in the emotional lives of many Americans, the crucial transition from high school to what lies beyond never quite ends, that narrowing passage from the nest of fantasy and discovery, limitless possibility, to the expectation of consistency that goes with being an adult reinforcing the nest, Levin’s treatment on high school’s terms of the psychology of defiance makes a lot of sense.

What makes less sense is the ending of the novel, which registers somewhere between tremendous and incoherent, perhaps deliberately so, as suggested by the novel’s coda, a Cobain-and-Novoselic-busting-up-the-gear sort of spin on Tolstoy’s second epilogue to War and Peace. Caged but boundless in his thinking, Gurion’s voice, the novel’s sine qua non, is taut and commanding, a rallying point for the hopelessly self-doubting. Says Gurion’s most loyal follower Eliyahu of Brooklyn: “Anyone who reads or listens to Gurion ben-Judah without enmity becomes more like him; demonstrably more like him.” As Gurion himself discovers in fierce competition with best friend Benji Nakamook (“Our worth is determined by nothing other than the strength of our loyalties,” says Benji), “What you animate animates you back.”

The Instructions holds secreted in its pages something like the advice Aptakisic’s Principal Brodsky gives to Gurion, advice which, naturally, the boy genius refuses:

Most people, Gurion — most people do not violate boundaries, do not defy governance, and most of them come out intact, whereas very few of those who act lawlessly do… You are here to learn how to exist in cages without acting as if they are cages, to live like mensches despite being locked in cages. You are here to learn to survive in the world.

“TV Planet”: Room by Emma Donoghue

“I shake my head till it’s wobbling because there’s no just me.” — five-year-old Jack after being informed by his mother that other people exist in the world outside Room.

In moments of greatest ambivalence, Gurion Maccabee has a habit he relies on, a touchstone of selfhood: “I bent all my fingers with all of my fingers and none of my fingers would break.” Jack, the 5-year-old narrator of Emma Donoghue’s Room, has his own way of relieving the anxiety that goes with being alongside his mother an unwitting captive in the 11 x 11 specially outfitted tool-shed of a madman: “I count my toes then my fingers then my teeth all over again. I get the right numbers every time but I’m not sure.”

That wallop of a premise is Donoghue’s masterstroke. Room is the story of Jack as told by Jack, the life he and his mother live restricted to each other’s company, the only life he has ever known. Room, as Jack calls the space they occupy, is populated not only by his mother and himself, but the many objects Jack’s keen imagination cleaves to: Lamp and Rocker and Rug, Bed and Duvet and Skylight, Watch and Wardrobe, inside of which Jack sleeps, slatted doors shut. (Explore a thoroughly creepy model of Room, courtesy of the publisher, here.) Old Nick, the imprisoned pair’s only link to the world outside, enters only at night.

Yet, while certainly plagued by fleeting bouts of fright and fury, Jack is pretty happy. And if Ma, as Jack calls her, isn’t exactly happy herself, she is happier than she would be without Jack, a fact that emboldens him to assume his own kind of tyranny. On three of their surrounding walls hover prints of famous paintings: DaVinci’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist, Monet’s Impression: Sunrise, Picasso’s Guernica. Yet the artists’ names mean nothing to the boy, not their fame or their ubiquity — an alien concept to him — only the story the paintings seem to tell. Jack projects himself into almost every story he hears. Shortly after the birthday with which the novel begins, he is floored to learn that other children exist in the world, not just his friends in TV.

A sense of humor is mandatory in Room. Observes Ma, “The whole living-on-less thing, it couldn’t be more zeitgeisty.” Adam Levin among contemporary novelists (and contemporary filmmakers and contemporary musicians) isn’t the only one, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, showering knowing winks on his audience: “We’re like people in a book, and he won’t let anybody else read it,” Ma explains of Old Nick. “He thinks we’re things that belong to him, because Room does.”

At five Jack still breastfeeds, a fact with which he’s perfectly at ease. “I’m the boss of play,” declares Jack, “but Ma’s the boss of meals.” The welcomed oblivion of breastfeeding is Jack’s salve for that obsession with the number of teeth in his mouth. With Room, Donoghue has honed in on the modern obsession with technology, contemporaneity, and the contemporaneity technology enables, the mediated blankies (FacebookGoogleTwittercraigslistFourSquare) that coddle and make expansive the self. As in The Instructions, voice carries the day: “I guess my body is mine and the ideas that happen in my head. But my cells are made out of her cells so I’m kind of hers. Also when I tell her what I’m thinking and she tells me what she’s thinking, our each ideas jump into our other’s head, like coloring blue crayon on top of yellow that makes green.” Open source culture, if you will.

To make the perfect the enemy of the good, there are ways in which Room, for all its lurid resonance, could be better. The decision to narrate the story continuously, with nearly no ellipses in the flow of events, bolsters Donoghue’s claustrophobic eternal present while giving the plot a rudderless quality, especially in the book’s second half. Jack’s voice, for the most part charmingly realized, can grow cloying: “It’s double more chocolatier than the chocolates we got sometimes for Sundaytreat, it’s the best thing I ever ate.”

Finally, Donoghue’s plotting adheres to the tradition of pulp thrillers, a mercilessly unfolding sequence of events whose logic seems governed only by shock value. Sometimes, the shock value is less than shocking, as when an adult character asks Jack in one of a handful of canned moments, “Didn’t your ma ever teach you not to play with fire?” But Room will continue to do fine there on the airport sales rack next to Tell No One, Going Rogue and the latest from Stephen King.

–Jeff Price is a Brooklyn-based editor and writer.

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