Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Completed: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God


So. There's this problem that crops up for teachers of literature, especially if there's any expectation that their texts will tie in to content from another class. For example, let's say that my students are learning about China in their history class, and I'd like them to read a book set in China to compliment their learning. In those cases, what can happen is that the need to have the book cover a certain concept, or be set in a certain place, or have a character of a certain gender TRUMPS the literary merit of said novel. At some point, this is why we uncoupled a "humanities" course in the high school, turning in back into a history course and an English course: if content drives the book selection, the literary quality of the selected novels is likely (not always, but usually) to suffer.

That brings me to this book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, which seems to be a novel driven by AN IDEA the author wanted to explore, and A POINT the author wanted to make, rather than a compelling character or conflict. It's hard to put my finger on it, but the closest I can come is that the author was looking to explain the phenomenon of the intellectual celebrity, the mystery of how humans can both feel part of and divorced from their communities of origin, and our modern dilemma of how to understand religion in the face of modern scientific knowledge----but rather than writing a few New Yorker articles, she thought it would be cute to put it all in a novel. You know, serve up the tough ideas with a thin veneer of plot, and it'll wash right down!

Not so much.

The novel itself centers around scholar Cass Seltzer, who's recent work on religious faith has won him quite a bit of media-attention. He's known everywhere as "the atheist with a soul." As it turns out, Cass's mother and family are part of a community of Hasidic Jews, in particular one of the most isolated and insular religious communities in the country. The novel starts with Cass looking out over the Charles River, considering a job offer from Harvard. They want to scoop him up from a second-tier university that's also in Boston. This leads Cass to ruminate on how his girlfriend, Lucinda, will react. But he doesn't want to tell her until he can do it in person, and she's away on a business trip. This is the A plot, moving forward in time. An old girlfriend of Cass's, Roz, appears to surprise him, some 20 years after their break-up as graduate students.

Roz's arrival sets into motion the backwards-moving B plot. This traces Cass's development as a graduate student, and his involvement with 2 extraordinary men: a young Hasidic boy, Azarya, from his hometown who is a definite genius, and Cass's mentor and PhD thesis advisor, Klapper.

The problem, and it's a big one, is that these stories never come together in any sort of satisfying way. All the characters are clearly being put into play to show the push/pull between faith and reason. For a guy as smart as Cass, it's sort of pathetic to see how unprepared he is for Lucinda's freak-out after he tells her about Harvard. Did any reader really think that Azyrya would leave his community behind for MIT? Most annoyingly, the B plot spends a lot of time setting up the disunion of Klapper and his graduate students, including Cass, but then never actually talks to much about the final rift. The entire B plot is ostensibly to reveal what happened between Cass and Klapper...and it's like crickets. I literally thought to myself, I must have missed something, I've done it before.

Instead of revealing the demise of Cass's relationship with Klapper, he rises from the dead to write a NYTimes article on the day that Cass is going to debate the existence of God with a Nobel prize winner. I mean, honestly, the whole thing is sort of ridiculous. As a novel, it's not satisfying because there's all these dropped characters and plot lines; as an exploration of faith and reason, it's unsatisfying because it's cluttered up with all these stupid characters.

The book ends with an appendix, 36 arguments for the existence of God along with a way to logically refute them. It's sort of interesting reading, but it's also weird. In the novel, Cass is famous for his 30 arguments, and he's widely regarded as brilliant for his work. Needless to say, it's a little awkward to read the author describing her own work as being brilliant. The whole thing was just a little too Jonathan Franzen, to be honest. 

It wasn't terrible for what it was, which was a thinly veiled exploration of the modern science of belief, but it just wasn't a very good novel. 


1 comment:

  1. Okay. I just scanned that PDF and that, itself, actually looks pretty interesting! (I'm going to read it when I have a bit more time.) The "story" you describe here... not so much.

    I am absolutely struggling to get through this book I am reading right now. The plot is weird and interesting and I like the characters and stories... but... the writing is impenetrable (note: there *will* be examples of impenetrable passages in my review.) I can't quit now though -- just 100 pages left! (Have you gone back to The End?)