I never wanted to buy an e-book reader. I love the smell of real books and their texture, feeling their weight in my hands. I love the way they look on my shelves and how I’m able to distinguish my favorites from the duds by the creases in their spines, the battered covers and the dog-eared pages. I didn’t want an e-book reader because:
- You don’t own the books you buy, you own licenses for them. How’m I gonna pass my digital library down to my hypothetical future children if the licenses are non-transferable?
- I love showing my books off to my friends. How do I do that with an e-reader? Do I hand it over to my friends and be like, “Yo, dudes. Check out all my files. Yeah, scroll through that shit. Dope, right?” No. Not dope. Not dope at all.
- I love paper, dammit.
Yes, I hate e-books. But now I own a Kindle. I betrayed my beliefs and I bought a Kindle.
Why? Because of you, Adam Levin.
Why’d you have to go and make The Instructions 1030 pages? It’s a terrific book, yes. But 1030 pages. 1030 pages. One thousand, thirty pages. And hardcover? How am I supposed to read this on the subway?
Adam Levin, you wrote a book I never wanted to put down, which is a shame because it was so heavy I had to put it down quite often. The book cramped my wrists and fingers. When I did manage to stuff it into my messenger bag, its weight pulled me down and made me a full inch shorter. An inch might not sound like much, but I am only 5′ 1″. I’m already short enough as it is!
The Instructions was so good that I couldn’t stop reading it, but I also couldn’t keep reading the version I had. And so I bought a Kindle.
As I inched my way through the story, I wondered: Is its length worth it? 1030 pages seems a bit excessive. Now that I’ve finished, I wish it was longer, just so I could still be reading it.
The Instructions opens with 10-year-old Gurion Maccabee and his two friends discussing the merits of waterboarding. While swimming in PE class, they decide to perform an experiment: they will try to drown each other. When the one underwater starts struggling to come up for air, the other two aren’t to release him immediately, but force him down for just a few seconds longer. The goal of this experiment being for the one being held underwater “to draw one of the following conclusions: ‘My best friends are about to accidentally drown me!’ or ‘My best friends are actually trying to drown me!’ The point was to learn what it was we feared more: being misunderstood or being betrayed.”
What a killer opening. Messed up, but memorable. The rest of the book continues in much the same vein.
Having been expelled from one school for throwing a stapler in a teacher’s face, and another for using a brick to beat up a boy on the playground (allegedly), Gurion Maccabee winds up at Aptakisic Junior High, where’s he’s placed into the school’s Cage program.
The final destination for troubled students, the Cage is a guarded room kept under constant lock and key. Most of the kids in the Cage are there because of violent behavior, which the Cage is meant to suppress but actually exacerbates. As the book progresses, so does the violence. Small acts of disrespect fuel slow burns between students and teachers, cultivating grudges and escalating skirmishes into all-out wars. The last couple hundred pages are dedicated to blow-by-blow descriptions of a brutal melee that breaks out within Aptakisic’s halls. At the center of this melee is Gurion Maccabee.
Here are some things to know about Gurion:
- He may be the Messiah
- If not the Messiah, he has the potential to be the Messiah
- He’s a scholar in the Talmud and he writes scripture. He is most known for Ulpan, or The Instructions, a step-by-step guide detailing how to make guns out of plastic bottles and pennies
- He has a following. He delivers a sermon and instructs his followers to create pennyguns and practice their aim, then asks that they distribute Ulpan to other Israelite boys so they’re armed and able to defend themselves
If it isn’t obvious, Judaism is a huge part of this book. A good chunk of The Instructions is devoted to Gurion’s musings on the Talmud and how the stories therein can explain and justify his actions. If you aren’t familiar with religious history, fear not. Gurion’s long-winded asides are thorough and intensive enough to make you a scholar in the Talmud, too. But if I’m going to be honest, I have to admit that I often skipped these history lessons. I couldn’t help it. My A got D’d.
Don’t know what that means? I didn’t either, at first. One of the best things about this book is the vernacular Levin creates for Gurion and his friends. My A Got D’d. Bancer. Shover. Snat. All words and phrases the kids use constantly, but which are rarely explained. Most are easy enough to figure out (context clues!), but for the more elusive ones you might do well to refer to the handy glossary put together by the Rumpus Book Club (FYI: My A got D’d = My attention got deficit-ed/distracted).
In a 1000+ page book dealing with subject matter as dense as religion and the causes and consequences of violence, there needs to be something lighter to balance it out, to keep the reader going. In the case of The Instructions, that thing is language. The writing in The Instructions is brilliant and wildly energetic. The book’s content and themes are serious, but Gurion, with his tendency to analyze everything to death and his habit of interspersing long-winded speeches with absurd asides, makes for a comical and captivating narrator.
Take one of the first scenes in the book. After getting into a fight in the locker room, Gurion is escorted to the principal’s office by the sleazy gym teacher, Ron Desormie. Desormie makes girls sit at the front of the gymnasium during PE so he can more closely watch them stretch, that’s how sleazy he is. As Desormie marches him down the hall, Gurion reflects:
Ron Desormie. What a name. What a pervy name. What a perfect name for a perv like him. It could be verbed like pasteurize. I thought: It could be? No. It will be. I thought: From now on, desormiate = perv the world, and rondesormiate will, for a while, be an acceptable, however overly formal, variant in the vein of irregardless, then become archaic, whereas sorm and desorm, the slang of tomorrow, will eventually dominate, rendering desormiate itself the over-formal variant.
And thus, desormiate was born. And it was good. Gurion is true to his word and does indeed make Desormie into a verb throughout the book, including instances of religious discourse. For example, towards the end of the story, Gurion’s father, a lawyer, is nearly trampled to death following a trial. Long story short, Gurion’s father (a Jew) defended the rights of a neo-Nazi, which got some people in the Jewish community angry, ultimately leading to a huge riot following the trial.
When graphic footage of Gurion’s father being stampeded is shown on television, Gurion’s friends express concern that his father may have been seriously injured. Gurion assures them that his father’s okay, that it wasn’t as bad as it looked, just some bruises, to which his friends reply, “Baruch Hashem.” Gurion’s response:
It was certainly good that my father hadn’t suffered greater damage, but that didn’t mean it was a blessing, or that I should thank Hashem. If anything that fails to be worse than it is is a blessing, then no one would say anything but baruch Hashem, for everything could be worse, and so everything would be a blessing… Desormie desormiated all the girls in spandex, but he never raped them; I should say baruch Hashem? Eliyahu’s family was murdered, but, baruch Hashem, they weren’t tortured first? The Shoah — as many Israelites had remained as were destroyed — baruch Hashem?
Yes, The Instructions is violent. And yes, it is dense. But if these passages prove anything, they prove that it’s also incredibly intelligent, witty, and wry. This is a book that will make you work, but it’s worth it.
Read it for the scene where Gurion tries to figure out how to initiate his first kiss (“If I touched her hair and she let me, then I could bend my head sideways. If she bent her head sideways, then I could lean forward. And if she leaned forward, then I could press my lips against her lips, and then we would be kissing”).
Read it for the memorably unique characters, including: Boystar (a budding Justin Bieber, debut album Emotionalize), Call-Me-Sandy (Gurion’s school therapist, who’s still in grad school and uses her reports on Gurion to ask her advisor out on dates), and the Main Hall Shovers (obsessed admirers of the school basketball team, identifiable by their customized scarves).
Read it for the hostage negotiation scene where, to stall for time, Gurion demands the near impossible — a phone call with Philip Roth.
Read it for the scene where Gurion actually gets to talk to Philip Roth.
Read The Instructions because if you don’t, you’ll be a bancer. Buy it from the McSweeney’s site and, while you’re there, check out their other awesome stuff. Or, if you must,
buy license the Kindle version here.