I picked up Balkan Ghosts because I was interested in the subject matter, and I hadn’t read anything by Robert D. Kaplan before this. It’s interesting that this book was published in the “Vintage Departures” series because it might not have occurred to me that this book is a travelogue, even though Kaplan does spend much of the book on rickety trains and in decrepit hotels throughout the Balkans. So unmethodical are his travels that “travelogue” seems a misnomer. Nonetheless, Kaplan’s descriptions of the Balkans just months after the fall of Communism are illuminating. At every turn, he is digging up hidden details unseen by Western eyes during the decades of communism. Through the shattered republics of Yugoslavia he travels, then on to Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Kaplan imbues the book with an impressive amount of historical context, going to great lengths to avoid the generalizations that are more typically employed to explain the seemingly perpetual strife of the Balkans. The book was published in 1995, the mid-point of a bloody decade in the Balkans, and it contains a good deal of forewarning of what was to come to pass in the region in the coming years. In this sense the book is impressive in a third way. Beyond a travelogue, beyond a regional history, Balkan Ghosts is the rare “current events” book that will not soon become obsolete.
Valeria Luiselli signed up for a tough project with The Story of My Teeth. It began as a story commissioned for the catalog of an exhibit in the Galería Jumex, a major contemporary art collection attached to a juice factory outside Mexico City. The purpose of the exhibit, and of her contribution, was to “reflect upon the bridges — or the lack thereof — between the featured artwork, the gallery, and the larger context of which the gallery took part.” So: a story about specific pieces of contemporary art, the art world at large, a juice factory, and an industrial neighborhood of which one of Luiselli’s characters says, “If there is a physical materialization of nothingness in this world, it is Ecatepec de Morelos.”
As if this weren’t challenging enough, Luiselli then decided to serialize her story to be read in the Jumex factory so that it would be “not so much about but for the factory workers.” The workers allowed Galería Jumex staff to record their discussions about what they’d read, and Luiselli recycled bits of those conversations in her novel. Oh, and one more thing: she did all this under a male pseudonym. Specifically, she did it as Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, which is her protagonist’s name.
At this point you’re probably laughing. You probably think that this sounds like performance art, which it might be, or like an MFA candidate’s anxiety-induced nightmare. But the thing is, Luiselli pulls it off. The Story of My Teeth is a great read. The writing is equal parts elegant and chatty, with a great sense of humor. It’s full of Big Ideas but never feels like a lecture. It’s episodic, a bit skittery, but has plenty of forward momentum. Luiselli never lingers too long in a section, or in one of Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez’s many anecdotes or digressions into the theory of auctioneering.
Highway announces early in the book that he is the inventor of a new method of auctioneering: the allegoric method. This makes him “not just a lowly seller of objects but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object. End of declaration.” Later, he explains to a young writer that “What auctioneers auction, in the end, are just names of people, and maybe words. All I do is give them new content.” In other words, he lies, and people buy. Draw connections to the art world as you will.
A lot of The Story of My Teeth is Luiselli letting the reader draw connections as he or she will. The book is littered with literary references. As a child, Highway works at Ruben Darío Jr.’s newsstand and helps Darío’s wife conceal her affair with a certain Mr. Unamuno. His next-door neighbor is Mr. Cortázar. His relatives all have names like Juan Sánchez Baudrillard and Miguel Sánchez Foucault. There are so many references that the book ends with a timeline put together by Christina MacSweeney, Luiselli’s translator, bringing them all together. (Yes, the book is a collaboration with her translator as well as the Jumex workers.) It can feel a bit like Roberto Bolaño circa The Savage Detectives, listing off all the Infra-Realists and their enemies, or like going to a party full of name-dropping jerks. The difference is that Luiselli doesn’t want you to take her names seriously.
Some of the names are jokes, like Highway’s cousin Juan Pablo Sánchez Sartre, who “couldn’t hold his drink [and] would inevitably tell us — around the time when the dessert was being served — that we were hell.” Some are shout-outs, like the bonsai store owned by Alejandro Zambra, the Chilean writer who published a novel called Bonsai in 2006 and whose most recent collection, My Documents, includes a story in which Valeria Luiselli is a character. And all of them, as Highway says, are just names of people. Assign them value or don’t. If you do, you might be getting tricked, or ripped off. On the other hand, who cares if you got tricked if you enjoyed the story?
The Story of My Teeth is a novel full of tricks and lies. Highway’s not exactly a reliable narrator, or a reliable auctioneer. He sells his own teeth as the teeth of Saint Augustine and Virginia Woolf. But, of course, all novels are full of tricks and lies. That’s what fiction is. And as Highway would have it, stories — or, you know, tricks and lies — are the only honest way to modify the value of an object. Not just an object. At the novel’s climax, Highway auctions himself to his son. He modifies his own value. Maybe that’s what fiction is, too: a way to make ourselves valuable. And you can’t blame a writer, or an auctioneer, for that.
The intrusion of the university into the life of the writer “is unquestionably the chief sociological fact of modern American literature,” Keith Gessen wrote in last year’s N+1 symposium on American literature. Though Gessen’s rhetoric may have been strategically hyperbolic, the facts bore him out. For better or for worse, the M.F.A. workshop has changed our conception of literary art from that of a calling to that of a profession – one with its own “skill sets,” human resources apparatus, and even (it seems at times) its own dress code.This isn’t entirely a bad thing (as both Gessen and I are in a position to know). Among other things, a graduate creative writing program provides a brief oasis of financial and social security in the hard country that is the writing life. (O, to return to the days when one could proclaim to an interlocutor, “I’m in grad school,” rather than mumbling, “I’m a writer…”) But the workshop is, as its best pedagogical theorists know, hostile to the new. At its worst, it is a machine for converting freshness into formula.Which helps to explain the durability, among students of writing, of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. For a decade and a half, this slim collection has passed from hand to hand among M.F.A. students like samizdat. Johnson’s stories are not reducible to formal principles. His plots are odd and ungainly. His sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language. My favorite Johnson story, for example, begins, “Sometimes I went during my lunch break into a big nursery across the street, a glass building full of plants and wet earth and feeling of cool dead sex.”Reading Johnson’s latest, longest, and, in my limited purview, finest novel, Tree of Smoke, I kept thinking of Jesus’ Son’s reinvention of the short story. Now, in 2007, in wartime, we find Johnson straining against the teachable conventions of the novel, in a way that does honor to the form. Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil, I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.This is a war novel in which the war never quite arrives. Instead, the tangled plot wraps itself around a handful of intelligence operatives, relief workers, and low-level grunts who hover around the peripheries of our decade-long quagmire in Vietnam. As some commentators have noted, the novel pays homage to the conventions of Vietnam literature and film, but it’s the departure from the tropes of innocence and experience that matters. Here, as in Johnson’s stories, the characters seem to have lost their innocence at birth. Their souls are stained with something like original sin.The central figure is William “Skip” Sands, who in 1965, when the novel opens, has joined the family business – the CIA. His uncle is a vivid, Ahabian character known as “The Colonel.” In the course of the novel, The Colonel will become obsessed with an elaborate psy-ops plot to feed phony intelligence to the North Vietnamese. Meanwhile, the Agency will become obsessed with bringing down The Colonel. Amid the proliferating intrigues, then, the main plot will boil down to classical terms: a conflict in Skip’s loyalties, the family vs. the state.Along the way, we meet the tormented Kathy, who provides aid to children injured in the war; the Houston brothers, enlisted men whose experiences in Vietnam may be said to be representative; and two Vietnamese ensnared in the Colonel’s conspiracy. In lesser hands, any of these characters might have decayed into types, but Johnson invests each with a deep interiority, letting his or her mind wander at cross-purposes to the narrative. Here, for example, is Nguyen Hao, the reluctant co-conspirator, waking in the morning:”Sloth kept him in bed awhile. Restlessness drove him downstairs to the tiny court behind his kitchen, where the sun made more mist. Under its warmth everything gave off ghosts. They woke from the bricks, rose with a deep reluctance, disappeared. Hao spread his white handkerchief on the stone bench, seated himself carefully, and tried to find some quiet in his mind.”Johnson who lately has been writing plays, tends to let his dialogue run on for pages, stilted, staccato bits meant to indict the poverty of speech, to leaven the mood, and to build tension. But his real genius is for description. In a single, unassuming detail – that white handkerchief – the character of Nguyen Hao comes alive, not an Orientalist’s prop, but a flesh-and-blood character, who might be our neighbor. Johnson works similar wonders with Skip Sands’ moustache.At 600 pages, the novel is clearly up to something bigger than a mere collection of characters. With its phony intelligence and its wartime hell built on the benevolent intentions of individuals like Skip, Tree of Smoke is an attempt to write about the present through the prism of the past. But Johnson’s refusal to surrender completely to thematic and political imperatives – his remarkable ability to let his material breathe – rescues the novel from didacticism.At times, I was reminded of a parable by Kafka, another writer who flirts with, but never gives in to, allegory. In it, a dying emperor “has sent a message to you, the humble subject.” His messenger sets out on his journey, but beyond the emporer’s bed is a chamber, and beyond the chamber door is another chamber, and beyond that an outer palace, and then more chambers and palaces “and so on for thousands of years… Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man.”War, in Tree of Smoke, is like that message. It exists, murderously, but just over the horizons. Explosions echo in the distance, flicker in the sky, waft the odor of charred flesh toward us, but we are trapped just outside it, at human scale, wrestling with the angels of our nature. In this way, the novel speaks eloquently to our condition here in the U.S, circa 2007. It’s the kind of eloquence they don’t teach you in school. I guess you have to earn it.[an excerpt from Tree of Smoke]
In the early years of the digital age, it was common to hear dire warnings about “the death of narrative.” Storytelling, the thinking ran, is an artifact of a world where every bit of information requires its own patch of physical space – on a page, on film, in someone’s memory – that must be located and read separately. This quickly becomes unmanageable, so for millennia authors have organized information into little cause-and-effect narratives that helped audiences make sense of complex sets of facts.
But as early technologists pointed out, with the web browser making vast swathes of information instantly accessible, narrative becomes less crucial. Readers can find what they need by following links, bouncing from, say, a Wikipedia profile of George Clooney to TMZ posts on his sexy new girlfriend Amal Alamuddin to YouTube clips of him looking young and foxy on old episodes of ER. Twenty years ago, such a search would have required sifting through piles of clippings and old video tapes – or, more likely, reading a biography of George Clooney in which an author did the sifting for you and organized it in the form of a story.
Digital connectivity enables us to find and manage huge amounts of information, and we now spend our lives immersed in it, on Wikipedia and social networking sites and on our work computers that crunch the data we need to do our jobs. But as bestselling author Michael Lewis recently demonstrated with his new book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, narrative still trumps hyperlinking when it comes to hugely complex sets of information – especially when powerful inside interests are working to make sure we can’t understand what that information means.
Flash Boys, after all, breaks little new ground journalistically. The high-frequency trading (HFT) strategies the book describes have been part of the Wall Street landscape for a decade and HFT firms have been siphoning tens of billions of dollars from the exchanges that we all depend on to grow our retirement accounts for nearly as long. Major newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have been on the story from the start, and Lewis himself name-checks two earlier books on the subject, Scott Patterson’s Dark Pools and Broken Markets by Sal Arnuk and Joseph Saluzzi.
We had the information, but very few of us could make sense of what we were seeing. The facts were just too abstruse to take in. HFT firms use super-fast computer connections and complex mathematical algorithms to predict the intentions of Wall Street players and trade ahead of them, snapping up stocks before the slower players can get to them and then selling them back to the slow-movers at inflated prices. This doesn’t sound good even to the uninitiated, but it also sounds technical and complicated, and, well, kind of boring. Before we know it, we’re back looking at those pics of George Clooney and his hot new lawyer girlfriend on TMZ.
This is why we need a storyteller like Lewis, the author of twelve books, including bestsellers Moneyball and The Blind Side, to help us see what HFT firms are doing and why we should care. Essentially, Lewis says, HFT firms offer to buy or sell small numbers – typically 100 shares – of huge numbers of publicly traded stocks. When a big bank or mutual fund expresses interest in a stock, the trade on those first 100 shares triggers a lightning-fast reaction in which the HFT firm buys up the stock elsewhere in the system before the bigger, slower trader can, and pockets the difference between the price the big trader was willing to pay and the actual price of the stock on the open market.
High-frequency traders can do this because their systems for connecting their computers to the stock exchanges – there are 45 of them now in the U.S. – are faster than the less specialized programs used by big banks and mutual funds. How much faster? Sometimes it’s just a few thousands of a second, but that’s enough time to enable HFT firms to skim tens of billions of dollars, penny by penny, out of the market. “It was like a broken slot machine in a casino that pays off every time,” Lewis writes of the system. “It would keep paying off until someone said something about it; but no one who played the slot machine had any interest in pointing out that it was broken.”
Part of the problem, Lewis writes, is that the American financial system has ceased to be imaginable on a human scale. Most people, he notes, when they imagine the stock market still see “a ticker tape run[ning] across the bottom of some cable TV screen, and alpha males in color-coded jackets stand[ing] in trading pits, hollering at each other. That picture is dated; the world it depicts is dead. …The U.S. stock market now trades inside black boxes, in heavily guarded buildings in New Jersey and Chicago.”
The task Lewis sets for himself in Flash Boys is to pry the American financial system loose from those black boxes and reimagine it for us on a human scale. And to do that, he tells a story. If you have read Lewis’s earlier books, the plot of this one will sound familiar: a ragtag bunch of colorful geeks and misfits, armed only with their superior intelligence and moral rectitude, take on a corrupt system – and win! That this is essentially the plot of Lewis’ last bestseller, The Big Short, about the mortgage crisis, and eerily reminiscent of the plots of Moneyball, about the use of statistical analysis in baseball, and The New New Thing, about the early days of Silicon Valley, is frankly something of a worry. After reading a bunch of Lewis’s books, you begin to wonder just how many colorful geeks and misfits there really are out there, and how willing you are to believe a set of complex facts just because you want the good guys to win.
This is the danger of narrative as a tool for spreading information. A tale well-told taps into the primal need we all have for an emotionally satisfying story of good triumphing over evil. If we like the central characters and want them to win, we stop thinking and start feeling. Lewis, a supremely gifted storyteller, understands this and deftly transforms an office full of well-educated bankers and software experts into the motley crew of quirky outsiders and warped idealists he needs to tell a satisfying story.
Lewis never speaks to the high-frequency traders that the book’s hero, Brad Katsuyama, a former Royal Bank of Canada equities trader, is battling against (most likely, they wouldn’t talk to him). So the central events of the book are seen through the eyes of Katsuyama and his merry band of insurgents, who range from computer geeks who keep oiled Rubik’s cubes under their desks to executives like John Schwall, whose moral prism is shaped by his working-class background as son and grandson of Staten Island firefighters. “It just really pissed me off,” Schwall says of the HFT trading strategies. “That people set out this way to make money from everyone else’s retirement account. I knew who was being screwed, people like my mom and pop, and I became hell-bent on figuring out who was doing the screwing.”
As will be the case in the movie that will surely be made of Flash Boys, upon discovering that shadowy outfits using algorithms written by Russian-born computer programmers are stealing from Wall Street, Katsuyama assembles a team and concocts a crazily ambitious plan to combat the thievery – namely, a new private exchange, called IEX, designed to eliminate the advantages of high-speed trading. “I feel like I’m an expert in something that badly needs to changed,” Katsuyama tells his wife, Ashley, one night. “I think there’s only a few people in the world who can do anything about this. If I don’t do something right now – me, Brad Katsuyama – there’s no one to call.”
Right. And the next morning, he puts on his blue suit and big red cape and flies to work.
There is too much of this kind of comic-book hero-making in Flash Boys, especially in its later sections, but does it invalidate the book? Here, I think, context is all. On March 30, before Flash Boys appeared, few outside Wall Street had heard of high-frequency trading, and even many people in finance had little idea how HFT really works. Now, thanks to Flash Boys, and a high-profile rollout that included an excerpt in the New York Times Magazine and a feature on 60 Minutes, federal investigations into high-frequency trading have picked up steam and trading volume on Katsuyama’s IEX is up 40% in just two weeks.
All systems for delivering information are imperfect because the human mind can only hold so much at one time, and when things get complicated, something important always gets left out. As it happens, this has been a running sub-theme of Lewis’s own reporting for his last several books: what happens when two different systems of collecting and analyzing information clash. At the heart of Moneyball, about the 2002 Oakland A’s, is a disconnect between an older, mostly narrative-based system of player evaluation favored by the team’s grizzled scouting team and a newer data-driven system favored by its stats geeks. The Big Short, about the mortgage crisis, is similarly about two different ways of reading the abundant data about the state of the mortgage market in the lead-up to the 2008 crash.
What’s interesting is that, unlike a lot of less sharp-eyed observers of commerce in the age of data, Lewis never makes the mistake of thinking that the one with the most data wins. The bankers who drove the economy off the cliff in 2008 had more than enough data to demonstrate that the bets they were making made no sense, but they told themselves a story that, while fanciful, allowed them to ignore evidence that would have gotten between them and their fat year-end bonuses. In the end, though, they were wrong. The market crashed, banks went bankrupt or were sold at fire-sale prices, and many bankers – though not nearly enough – lost their jobs.
Surely, high-frequency trading is more complicated than the Manichean portrait of it Lewis draws of it in Flash Boys, but if he hadn’t found a way to boil down this highly technical issue to an emotionally satisfying tale of good vs. evil, most of us would never have known it existed. Thanks in part to Lewis’ storytelling, a system hidden away in black boxes in heavily guarded buildings in New Jersey and Chicago has been dragged into the light. Now, comes the interesting part. Will Brad Katsuyama’s IEX solve the problem, or will the high-frequency traders lure their customers back despite the disclosures in Lewis’s book? The truth lies neither in data nor in stories, but in results. How all this plays out will tell the tale.
The IQ Bubble
Oskar Schell, age nine, is a genius. Likewise Billy Argo and T.S. Spivet, both 10. At 14, Alma Singer is at least hella precocious. And with subspecialties including M-theory, French horn, and the Future of Humanity, her contemporary Ruprecht van Doren is off the charts (though with a name like Ruprecht van Doren, you’d sort of have to be). Genius is, by definition, exceptional, and until recently it was only in Lake Wobegon and the films of Wes Anderson that all children could be above average. But in the last few years the Anglo-American novel, full of characters like the foregoing, has come to resemble a kind of overdriven gifted-and-talented program: one your own kid would never make it into.
To be sure, the ‘tween geniuses of Jonathan Safran Foer et al. are not without precedent. It’s been almost two centuries since Dickens loosed his intrepid moppets on the streets of London. (Little David Copperfield is, if not quite Mensa material, surely a Child of Distinction.) And American literature has always been unusually interested in kids. If much of Russian fiction, as Dostoevsky reportedly said, emerged from Gogol‘s overcoat, our own novelistic tradition might be said to have emerged from that of Mark Twain, who found in his Hannibal boyhood both a wellspring of vernacular comedy and a nexus of the great American tensions: freedom versus settlement, the individual versus society, the past versus the future. Huck Finn rendered James Fennimore Cooper’s Mohican fantasias on the same themes instantly old hat. Who needs noble savages when you’ve got adolescents? (Is there any difference, in the end?)
Even in America, however, literary innocence has historically been a rigged game. With its tropism for irony, the novel as a form prods its protagonists toward experience, toward compromise, and toward “sivilization” – in short, to growing up. Unless, that is, the child is more civilized than the man, as seems to be the case with the current bumper crop of prodigies. These kids’ real forebears are not Augie March or Maisie Farange, but comic book superheroes, Harriet the Spy, and – preeminently – the novels of J.D. Salinger. Like the Glasses, they seem too good for the lousy adult world, and perhaps too good to be true.
In this (and, it must be said, in its gargantuan length), Adam Levin’s literary debut, The Instructions, would seem to be some sort of apotheosis. Its 10-year-old narrator and protagonist, Gurion Maccabee, is not just another kid genius with an improbable name; he’s also worldly, charismatic, quick with a joke or to light up your smoke, a martial artist, a sometime-telepath, a devout half-Ethiopian, half-Ashkenazi Israelite…and, oh, yeah: quite possibly the Messiah. It’s easy to see why, even if you liked Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet, you might feel you need this wisenheimer’s 1,000-page scripture like you need a hole in your head. But The Instructions turns out to be, for better and for worse, something like the Only Kid Genius Novel You’ll Ever Need. That is, it simultaneously makes good on the subgenre’s promise and exposes its limitations. And en route to its wacko finale, it begins to illuminate the begged question: Why so much genius? Why now?
And a Child Shall Lead Them
The Instructions opens with our narrator inside a cage. Or rather, CAGE—a special facility within Aptakisic Junior High School for students with behavioral problems. It isn’t explained at first how this CAGE works, exactly, or what those initials stand for. What we get, instead, is Gurion’s voice—baroque, headlong, impertinent, a gallimaufry of high-flying excursus and middle-school pidgin (“banced,” “snat,” “chomsky”). His monologue (“Scripture,” he insists) careens from linguistics to theodicy to how to build your own small arms from household oddments. Underneath, though, a single question niggles: What’s a kid like you doing in a place like this?
Levin parcels the answer out slowly. Which turns out to be a good thing, because the plot—basically boy meets girl, girl’s a goy, mayhem ensues—is a pretty thin reed on which to hang three pounds of book. The entire novel covers only the four days leading up to what a mock-prefatory note has hinted will be some kind of in-school insurrection (variously referred to as “the Damage Proper;” “the 11/17 Miracle;” and “the Gurionic War.”) In the absence of much action, it’s the mystery of Gurion’s personality that keeps us reading. Well, that and to see what kind of crazy shit he’ll say next.
As any kid genius will, Gurion tap-dances all over the line between precocity and preciousness. Levin, who studied with George Saunders at Syracuse, clearly admires the miglior fabbro’s demotic hijinks, and Gurion often achieves a Saundersish charm, both in rat-a-tat dialogue and in casual stabs of description that bring the world of junior high back like yesterday’s hot lunch. Ron Desormie “taught Gym in shorts that his wang stretched the crotch of”—you pretty much had me at “wang.” But just as often there’s an inability to leave well enough alone (Desormie also “hummed out a melody with lipfart percussion and aggressively dance-walked and thought it was strutting.”)
Such compulsive effervescence is both a liability and an asset. On the one hand, it flattens the characters around Gurion (with a couple of exceptions), and thus the stakes for the impending “Miracle”-cum-“War.” Eliza June Watermark, his shiksa love-interest, is more a cluster of attributes than a fully formed person. The keepers of the CAGE are, like the lipfarting, dance-walking Desormie, cartoons. And I’d swear that Flowers, the middle-aged juju man who guides Gurion through the writing of the scripture we are even now reading, is actually Bleeding Gums Murphy, from The Simpsons:
Even if what you write about is boring, you can’t be writing boring. Seem to me like you want to write about you wang, anyhow. Now you wang—that’s a good example cause it’s boring to me […] One thing ain’t boring to me about you wang is how you’re callin it wang.
On the other hand, Levin ain’t boring, which is important, when your scripture is also a tome. And our inability to see actual people behind Levin’s antic renderings is a powerful corollary for what will come to seem the narrator’s egocentrism, the child trapped inside the prodigy.
The first half of The Instructions is also enlivened by lengthy “inserts”: emails, school assignments, a psychological assessment. Through these chinks in the monologuist’s armor, we begin to glimpse Gurion from angles other than his own. Flowers may not be, as therapist-in-training Sandra Billings suggests, his “imaginary friend” (after all—disappointingly—Mr. and Mrs. Maccabee can see him, too), but her otherwise reasonable conclusions and the vehemence with which Gurion doth protest remind us that, like any scripture, this one is open to interpretation:
It may be the case […] that Gurion is by nature an ideal student. […] On the other hand, it may be the case that Gurion, once an ideal student, has become […] the dangerous and even doomed boy indicated by his record.
It is in this kind of irony, rather than in verbal vaudeville, that Levin begins to earn the jacket-copy comparisons to David Foster Wallace. His greatest gifts are also, as Gurion would put it, his most “stealth”: a dialectical intelligence, and crucially, a sense of paradox. The specific paradoxes to which the novel keeps returning involve justice, peace, and power. And these are not mere abstractions, confined to the Torah stories that obsess Gurion; their real-world consequences range from in-school bullying to foreign policy. Such subtexts, handled subtly at first, come crashing into the foreground in a bravura set-piece near the novel’s midway point. The child prodigy thinks back to September 11 of his kindergarten year, and to events it takes more than a high Myers-Briggs score to comprehend.
In the novel’s second half, “The Gurionic War,” Levin dispenses, somewhat disastrously, with these insertions, leaving us with hundreds of pages of unadulterated prodigy. If this shaves a few ounces off the book, it also lays bare the geologic pacing of the plot. And the solipsism of Gurion’s point-of-view becomes not just something that seduces the other Aptakisic ne’er-do-wells, but something inflicted on the reader. It’s as if The Instructions has painted itself into a corner. Nonetheless, there’s always the possibility that Gurion will run up a wall, or sprout wings, and so we press on to the long-promised climax.
I’m not going to spoil that climax, other than invoking Einstein’s suggestion that no worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its conception. On the level of action, Levin gives us a significant payoff—he has to, after so many pages, or we’d want to egg his house—but in aesthetic terms, I was unpersuaded. Until. Until the abrupt return (right around the point where Philip Roth makes a cameo) of other, opposing voices. The novel’s conclusion, as distinct from the climax, juxtaposes several points-of-view and timeframes, throwing the central questions of Gurion’s existence back into high relief. And what saves the novel from self-indulgence is that they are also among the burning ethical questions of our time. For example: who has the right, in a fallen world, to dispense justice? Who has the right to judge? And what separates a savior from a lunatic?
Cult of the Child
It can’t be an accident that the current boom in novels about kid geniuses (or wizards) coincides with the dawn of a new age of catastrophe: buildings falling, anthrax, school shootings, wars, near economic collapse, and the palpable twilight of the American empire. Back in the ‘60s, establishment types liked to imagine that the young people mucking up the nation’s campuses were merely restaging their childhood as politics – acting out their Oedipal fantasies. Now, though, it has begun to seem that the terms are reversed; that we are trying to escape our political traumas by returning to childhood. Botox, Facebook, Pixar, skateboards and ringer tees…
In particular, Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s, which publishes The Instructions, has made childhood into a cult phenomenon. Its quarterly is nostalgic in ways big (design) and small (plenty of coming-of-age stories), and most of its best books (What is the What, The Children’s Hospital, Here They Come) center on the experiences of children. Indeed, childhood delimits the McSweeney’s aesthetic as such—the meringue of whimsy on top, and underneath the moral fiber that is our birthright. (“I am tired,” runs one epigraph to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering…er… Genius. “I am true of heart!”)
The editors of N+1, precocious themselves, were quick to spot this. “Eggersards returned to the claims of childhood,” they noted in their first issue. But they were incorrect to claim that “Transcendence would not figure in [Eggersard] thought,” as anyone can tell you who remembers that moment at the end of AHWOSG where Dave and his kid brother run back and forth on the beach chasing the world’s most symbolic frisbee. To be a child is, for the duration of that childhood, to be transcendent.
The kid genius is, then—almost uniquely in our culture—a nakedly utopian figure (though a conservative one, in that his promised land lays in the past). He is wise. He is powerful. He is moral. The grinding compromises of bourgeois life and the adult obtusenesses that stands in for it do not concern him; growing up is selling out. He will, like Oskar Matzerath of The Tin Drum (for whom Foer’s Oskar is presumably named) stay small, and, in so doing, stay pure.
Putting Away Childish Things
At its best, the kid genius novel works as a kind of allegory, albeit at the cost of turning everything—even the world-historical—personal. At its worst, it represents just another flight from the ethical, into the ready embrace of the aesthetic. In the end, the signal achievement of The Instructions is that it manages to reopen the communicating channels between these binaries.
In so doing, this entertaining novel clears at least one of the hurdles of art: its strengths become inextricable from its weaknesses. Levin’s willingness to hew to the boundaries of his character’s skull—a kind of cage inside a CAGE inside a cage inside a cage—may sometimes make us wish Gurion would just take a Xanax and go to bed. But it also brings us into the presence of a fully realized consciousness, which is surely one of the noblest tasks of fiction.
To call The Instructions a young man’s book is to say partly that Levin, who himself may be a kind of genius, has many books ahead of him. And like Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, that other hypertrophied iteration of the kid genius novel, this one ultimately keeps in view a world of very adult consequences. To the innocence we’ve been protesting this last decade, it manages to restore connotations of blindness, gullibility, and misapprehension. And so it may mark both the culmination and the dissolution of its subgenre—a turn away from the handsome doll-furniture of our childhood rooms, and toward the world writ large.
Sidebar: A Brief Timeline of the Literary Kid Genius
Seymour Glass, Seymour: An Introduction (1963)
Simons Everson Manigault, Edisto (1984)
Phillip, A History of Luminous Motion (1989)
Hal Incandenza, Infinite Jest (1996)
Magid Iqbal, White Teeth (2000)
Ludo Newman, The Last Samurai (2002)
Oskar Schell, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
Blue van der Meer, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006)
Billy Argo, The Boy Detective Fails (2006)
Rumika Vasi, Gifted (2007)
Saul Dawson-Smith, The Truth About These Strange Times (2008)
T.S. Spivet, The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet (2009)
Ruprecht van Doren, Skippy Dies (2010)
Gurion Maccabee, The Instructions (2010)