Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Halfway Through Adam Levin's "The Instructions": Of Sub and Serious Men

Adam Levin's "The Instructions" is a novel with a lot to say. At a bit more than the halfway mark (pg. 610 approx.), I thought I'd hit the ground running with somethings it says that have especially struck me. So here we go...

There's a need to represent the voice of the modern, let's say especially male, illiterate in contemporary fiction. Does it stretch a writer's capacity, to write as a guy who doesn't have much to express in any coherent, articulate way? (Especially when you're an Adam Levin, who clearly does.)

No more so than a skilled actor affecting bad acting.

"The Instructions" is full of these contemporary Cro-Magnons or troglodytes or whatever historically lower-on-the-evolutionary-ladder group you wish to assign them to, i.e. men who haven't got much to offer the grand discourse but no less wish to add their two cents. They might also like to feel marginalized, on the fringe, like their way of life is under attack. True, sometimes -- often -- their way of life may well be under attack, but it's not without reason. The reason? Bluntly, the things they're willing to uphold are often terrible, like denying themselves and / or others of what should be basic freedom, of the right to decide for oneself what's moral and just.

This phenomenon brought to mind Simone De Beauvoir and her description of the "sub-man" and the "serious man" -- lowest in the order of her archetypal freedom seekers. The sub-man is led along like a calf to slaughter, and the serious man upholds certain idols for the simultaneous and fairly paradoxical ends of control and personal fulfillment. In other words, the serious man usually begins to believe his own fictions, perpetuating them and foisting them on the always less-discriminating sub-man. Thus are dogmas born and sustained, or so I say, in a nutshell. (Hannah Arendt would then have referred to sub-men as the disenfranchised necessary for demagogues to enact totalitarianism, which is something.)

[Various spoilers no doubt ensue. So proceed with caution!]

In Levin's fiction, sub-men come in the form of, primarily, the security personnel of Aptakisic Middle School, a major setting of the story and one in which we find the 10-year-old protagonist and primary narrative voice, Gurion Maccabee, constantly and deliberately willing himself into conflict. The hypertrophied, hyperactive argumentative abilities of Gurion and his cohorts on "The Side of Damage" (more on that group in a bit) who inhabit the Cage (a little more on this in the next paragraph) are put into direct linguistic opposition with these "mediocre men" -- to refer to them in Nietzschean parlance, because of all the damnable philosophical language already in use. Ron Desormie, lecherous gym teacher, is the ostensible leader to these sub-men, and poster child of "The Arrangement" (primary antagonist of The Side of Damage, which I'll get to when I get to both (they go hand-in-hand)), a serious man if ever there was one, his idol being the so-called self-evident value of winning, and doing so at any cost.

But my favorite of the sub-men, and probably the best rendered in terms of speech and appearance, is a handless (lost in a crop-grinder) Australian transplant, Monitor Victor Botha, disciplinarian to the Cage's inhabitants (The Cage being a place for students who have exhibited violent or otherwise dangerous tendencies that make them unfit for inclusion in classes with the general student body). Botha is the only major authority figure in the Cage, the teachers who flow in and out of its confines (literally a cage-like chain link enclosure) are rarely even subordinate to him in any authoritarian chain-of-command sense. Botha's law is, at the story's outset, absolute. Unlike, say, Nurse Ratched of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," who felt a panacea lay in the prospect of shaming those in her charge out of their difference, Botha desires not to be bothered. Only rarely does he shame anyone, and when he does, he does it with far less cunning and pre-meditation than Nurse Ratched. One such instance of Botha's sadism especially comes to mind, happening around the 100 page mark, which leads to a good turn by Benji Nakamook (Gurion's closest companion) and others in the Cage, as effect.

The incident in question occurred when Gurion first arrived at the Cage, practically his initial interaction with Botha and all others attending Cage classes. There was, meanwhile and hitherto Gurion's arrival, a student -- Egon Marsh -- who was constantly the butt of jokes in the Cage, apparently partially a result of his living in squalid, abusive conditions at home.

The incident began with Botha noting a smell, and said, in a little of his idiosyncratic accent (a bizarre fusion of Australian and, interestingly, really heavy Chicagoan), "Something smells downright bleddy Marshy." Gurion is unaware that the comment is aimed derisively at Marsh. The subsequent events are bulleted:

  • Gurion purposely breaks and asks to sharpen a pencil in an over-compensating attempt to demonstrate that the smell is not his own, as said unaware that Egon Marsh is the one who Botha's accused of being smelly.

  • Botha warns Gurion that normally he'd be given a "step" (the punishment progression at Aptakisic for misbehavior) as consequence for Gurion's speaking out of turn, but he'd benevolently let it slide this time. (Gurion probably correctly surmises, in narrative reflection, "That Botha might be actively trying to humiliate me ..." though admits it didn't occur to him at the time.)

  • Finally, as Gurion begins sharpening his pencil, Botha takes the opportunity to begin his assault on his easy target, Egon Marsh, saying: "Wait! Wait, Mr. Makebee! No need to waste your affort. I think I've found a writing implement here--yes. Look. Right here in this nest!" And he affected pulling a hidden pencil from Egon's hair.
The reaction this elicits is at first mirth, but then, Benji Nakamook decides it better to humiliate the perpetuator of humiliation, and says, simply, "Combover" to Botha. Because, as it happens, Botha class-act that he is, has a combover. This might seem trite in any other situation, an easy exercise of an old cliche, i.e. villainous lowlife = has a combover. But Levin goes to great lengths both to explain the combover as a thing in itself and then Botha's personal reasons for sporting that really unpleasant look. Partly explained by Gurion as follows, "Like those kids who when you tell them their foot-taps annoy you and then in response they tap faster and harder, these men kept their combovers intact to save face."

This then segues into a really involved effort by Nakamook to insult Botha by modifying his hairstyle to affect a combover of his own (a "Harpo Progression" as Gurion calls it), which like quite a few of the Side of Damage's efforts to mock the sub-men of authority, fairly quickly gets away from him and brings about wholly new problems that I won't delve into. (Gurion does a nice job, however, of incisively picking apart the psychological nuances of Nakamook's mockery gone awry, part of which can be blamed on Gurion's own misunderstanding at the time of the combover plot's unfurling.)

Botha's presence as law of the Cage remains ubiquitous in the narrative, even as lengthy passages lead Gurion elsewhere in and around Chicagoland (which is, if I haven't already said it, the greater setting in which practically all of the story takes place). I'll be very interested to see how he and his role change (however significantly).

The Side of Damage exists to undermine the Arrangement (authority for authority's sake, rote and pointless). One of the neatest things about "The Instructions" is how big ideas are rendered with very real-sounding churlish and / or childish vernacular. The Side of Damage sounds like the secret society of rebellious pre-teens and teenagers. And that's just one highly notable example. As the story progresses we see a psychological profile done of Gurion by his therapist, "Call-Me-Sandy" (a woman of some student-standing at the University of Chicago, brought clearly to bear in her profile of Gurion, which also has within it coded and not-quite-coded advances directed toward her female professor). In "Call-Me-Sandy"'s profile we learn in clinical terms (many of which "Call-Me-Sandy" later admits were used for the express purpose of impressing her professor) that Gurion has several very distinct ways of communicating with his peers, but which boil down to three different kinds of "codeswitching" (pg. 306-7): 1) erudite, 2) prophetical and 3) colloquial.

Largely ignored by me to this point is the nature of Gurion and his religion (which as the story would have it are inextricable terms). He demonstrates his great faith by making frequent reference to God "Adonai," the Jews "Israelites" (there are no longer Jews, and the term holds no meaning to Gurion), and other esoteric references to traditional semitic, chiefly Hebraic, texts and so forth. I mention that here because many of Gurion's friends and a great deal of the reason for why he has not been allowed to stay enrolled at any of his previous schools, believe him to be a kind of prophet, or very plain and straightforwardly, The Messiah. Accordingly he is referred to as "Rabbi" by many of his fellow Israelites, who see him as a scholar and authority on such matters. He sees himself in the same terms, more or less, and in his free time (in passages which fill the novel) he writes his scripture.

All of this then seems to fall under the auspices of The Side of Damage, although certainly Gurion has had some difficulty to this point in reconciling the somewhat dogmatic belief that Israelites are the chosen people, possibly needing to be led by Gurion, if he is the Messiah, and the more pluralistic membership, the generally neglected and oppressed, of the greater Side of Damage. The division is also sort of coming to a head at the point I'm at in "The Instructions" -- Nakamook is feeling betrayed to a certain extent by the fact that, as Benji is a goy, Gurion clearly cannot put him on the same standing as his followers, other Israelites.

Last, I'll mention Ron Desormie and one of his closest lackeys, Floyd The Chewer, and a situation involving them both while Gurion is trapped in an In-School Suspension (ISS). Gurion has constructed a weapon "a penny gun" that fires coins with enough force to cause bodily harm and property damage. He has used it on the scoreboard at Aptakisic, which is about as symbolic an attack on Ron Desormie as Desormie can endure. He doesn't endure the attack well and comes screaming at Gurion (Gurion is in his suspension for other reasons unrelated to the scoreboard, and it later is revealed the scoreboard was completely destroyed by an ally of the Side of Damage, not Gurion himself). Desormie then goes into a long soliloquy regarding his thoughts on Gurion and his "so-called" friends:
Not only don't I think your jokes are funny, ever . . . but I don't even get your jokes. And I don't think anyone does. And even if they do, I don't think they think your jokes are funny either, because you're not mature. Maturity, Maccabee, is control of yourself, and I don't think you've got control of yourself.

The soliloquy goes on to make reference to characters from "The Godfather" and "Good Fellas" and is mostly a rambling, ham-fisted diatribe. I like that Levin chose to have Desormie speak idiosyncratically with his expressing "Not only don't I think" and so forth. I think that, too, captures the voice of the individual he was going for, a man not totally in touch with how to express himself. I think it also sometimes goes a bit overboard, and I'm not as totally thrilled by malapropisms like Desormie's saying "non-sectarians" when he (probably) means to say non-sequitur.

Floyd the Chewer, a policing automaton of the school, enters the scene after Desormie has been led into the principal Mr. Brodsky's office, to explain the scoreboard and its destruction. Floyd wants to talk to "Ronny D" his nickname for Desormie, and asks Miss Pinge, the secretary, "So what about any updates on Ronny D and the chief, there? . . . You got a potentially predictional ballpark figure regarding the time for their pow-wow's overage, maybe?" All the malapropisms here are exceedingly forced, although I waver back and forth with this, because my main reason for feeling this way is that nobody in the world that I've experienced speaks like Floyd. But, then a.) who cares if anyone speaks like Floyd and b.) I have a feeling I'll one day meet someone who does, thus throwing that argument entirely out the window.

I'll have to reflect on this and still more things in what I have left to read of "The Instructions."

More to come!


  1. Have you finished The Instructions yet? What were your further thoughts on it? I read it in a month the first time through... I didn't like how quickly I finished it though, as I felt I didn't have enough time while reading to digest it. So I'm reading it again. I'm always interested to hear what others think about it though.

  2. Hey Kristin,

    No, I haven't finished the novel yet. I'm at the 800 page mark. Moving along but slowly. I do very much intend to write up my final thoughts on the novel. I have quite a few new ones since I finished this mid-book review. i'll reserve them in detail for that. Still, what I like best about this book is simultaneously what I find most frustrating: tangent-laden rumination. Gurion is quite skilled at reviewing every life occurrence, etcetera, to its furthest limit, or so it often seems. But I'll say more about that in a forthcoming post. I swear!