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Another fine mess

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36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction - Rebecca Newberger Goldstein 1. In the mid-eighties, while becoming strangely entangled with a slightly-older woman, I had a moment of what seemed to be psychic insight. I don't want to say too much about this woman, or said entanglement, but it's crucial to know that she was a fervent believer in Eckankar, a new-agey mash-up of cool stuff from Buddhism, Hinduism, the Judeo-Christian mishegoss--your mind could go anywhere, could do anything, it was all god, and you were god, too, and if you just let go you would be one with all. I was not so secretly in love with this woman, so I was really ready to go anywhere, to do anything, to be one with her at least, if the opportunity arose. We sat at this diner, and a friend of hers comes in--another woman, slightly older, nothing in any way memorable about her appearance or carriage. My crush had been busy talking to skeptical me about Eck and she says, as her friend whom I've never met comes up to the table, "Quick--what does {NAME} do?" I said, "She's a construction worker."

Reader, she was.

I later got even more entangled with this woman, and it messed up my head, and she left her husband, and I graduated from college, and what a mess. The two of us together made about as much sense as Eckankar.

2. That is not a story about faith. It is a story about what I desired in others, which is another way of saying (for the me at that age) what I was worried about in my self, which is another way of saying (for the existentialist in us all) what am I here for, and how should I live, and with whom?

The protagonist of this novel, Cass Seltzer, has three romantic entanglements with women over the course of the narrative, and there is something similarly theological in his embrace of each respective lover. The novel is quite lovely in accepting Cass' entrancement, quite subtle in teasing out how the way we frame our relationships with others is akin to our imagined relationship with the metaphysical Big Other.

3. There are moments where Goldstein's ideas thrum just under the surface of the carefully-structured (and yet never schematic) plotting, the even more deliberately-rendered characterizations.

4. There are other, too-rare moments where the ideas and these shaped identities come most fully and vibrantly alive. Cass writes about the psychology of religion, and his most famous work posits that religious illusions shape so much of the way we organize our lives--it's a really intriguing argument, somewhat realized in the novel's underlying thrum, and somewhat (alas) lost in the crush of information and detail.

5. Many of the characters seem to be, for instance, thinly-disguised public intellectuals. Seltzer bears some relationship to Steven Pinker, Goldstein's real-life paramour, and Seltzer's current love Lucinda Mandelbaum has some (but here the stretching gets most stretchy) intriguing traits linked to the author herself. Other instances seem more determinedly a-ha, where reading of the overweight, arrogant, oracular, endlessly-pretentiously-preening Humanities scholar Jonas Klapper is constantly pointing toward Harold Bloom.

6. Harold Bloom drives me crazy, his blowhard pronouncements and certainties so much of what I've hated about teachers in all kinds of fields all my life, particularly in the Humanities (where I ended up).

7. It was, alas, only occasionally fun(ny) to spend so much time with a character based so intently on a personality I so intently dislike. There were glimmers of wit and fun had at the expense of Klapper, yet he so often got center-stage that stretches of the novel seemed less an incisive satire of such figures than a painful reenactment of their foolishness.

8. I have this problem with many academic novels. I'm pretty sure it's not that I'm an academic, not just hurt feelings and defensiveness. No, it's a deeper narrative problem: telling a story with lots of foolish pretentious people works if a) their silliness is being endlessly gleefully mocked (see, e.g., Kingsley Amis) or b) their silliness is offset by a peculiar generous engagement with their foibles (see, e.g., Richard Russo). But here Jonas K is a pain in the ass, and I can rarely see why Goldstein is so enamored with him (despite occasional barbed derision and occasional empathetic affirmation of his humanity), and I never got a handle on why Cass Seltzer became his acolyte and stuck by his side for so long.

9. Cass Seltzer is interesting in the way hapless comic protagonists can be -- he is something of a cipher to himself, and he is buffeted about by the crazier, more outsized personalities all around him. And yet he is less interesting, in the way some hapless protagonists can be, in that his own beliefs and behaviors are largely a cipher to us readers, too.

10. There are long stretches of this book dealing with Hasidism, with deep roots and ideas of the Kabbala, with an astonishing child savant in that shtetl.

11. Even with those long stretches explicating the beliefs, I was mostly at a loss trying to make sense of how and why its people believe. People asserted and affirmed lots of beliefs (and lots of skepticism), but for a novel I'd assumed would be very focused on not just what but why people believe (or not), there remained a disconnect between some of its ideas (the psychology of religion, particularly Seltzer's intriguing ideas about how that explains much of our behavior) and its plotted and empeopled narrative. The story didn't fully reveal and enact such ideas, at least not for me.

12. The book had an ornate, intriguing structure that did keep me reading, and did engage. Yet I am damned if I can really pull together some clear sense of why and how the numbered arguments or just the particular organization of the novel mattered. It had a propulsive narrative momentum, but the logic of its conceptual structure was confusing to me.

13. I'm seeming harsh here, and perhaps I'm complaining obliquely about a book I had really wanted to read, and mistakenly thought this book was that book. It *is* a book about the way people grapple with faith and reason, and about the academy, but it is not a book really revelatory about those things. They are plot elements, perhaps even a bit MacGuffinesque; I guess I ended up thinking it was a book about some characters, who happened to be believers in X or professors of Y -- rather than a book about the concepts, which happened to use these particular characters to reveal those concepts.

The novel closes with a debate between Seltzer, public atheist, and a defender of the faith (a neocon Economics prof, who might be some real-life figure I couldn't place), and while I quite enjoyed Seltzer's rebuttals, I thought the believer got short shrift: his arguments weren't just straw, they were limp sodden straw, and it was way too easy for Seltzer to make hay with them.

The novel then has an appendix, as did Seltzer's scholarly treatise, with a refutation of each of the 36 arguments for the existence of god. These are clear, effective. Of course, they don't fit neatly with the narrative.

14. 14 doesn't seem like a magical number, but what the hey, one more thing: I'm an atheist. I came to my disbelief through much thinking and soul-searching and then soulless-searching. The second least interesting thing I can say about my atheism is to righteously assert that I don't believe in god, 'though I don't (and feel pretty good about that), and the least interesting thing is to say that you shouldn't believe in god. There are way more than 36 interesting things to say about how we all struggle with belief and reason every day, all the time, in hundreds of ways. (She was a construction worker! My crush beamed at me in ways that made my heart explode, and only years later did I think I might have had a career in fortune-telling carnival cons, as I had such a gift for reading people and scenes that I could leap to such conclusions from so little evidence. And yet, all that insight feh!, I goofily smiled back and followed my crush out the door and spent another 18 months figuring out what the hell was wrong with my misplaced, misguided desire, and how I had utterly misread my crush and my own self.)