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36 Arguments for the Existence of God
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Pantheon / Random House
As I've mentioned here many times before, it's always a dicey proposition anymore when a modern author chooses to set a novel within an academic environment: get it right, like for example how Michael Chabon does in his early hit Wonder Boys, and you end up with a real winner, a deeply moving tale that uses the backbiting minutia of the ivory tower to tell a story greater than the sum of its parts, while get it wrong and you end up with...well, all the rest of the million sh-tty academic novels out there that now exist, a million interchangeable stories about whiny, pretentious real-world failures, living in some precocious little town in the Midwest, where they are constantly having affairs with their 19-year-old students and getting into petty fights over tenure with their fellow professors, the product of a million lazy f-cking academic authors who literally can no longer think of anything to write about other than autobiographical screeds regarding how their farts smell like spring wildflowers. Thankfully, though, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, falls firmly in that former Chabon camp; and since this tends to be a rare occurrence, I thought I would use it as an excuse today to do a little analyzing as well as critiquing, to examine why in my opinion this book succeeds so wildly when so many other academic novels fail so badly.
But first, to be fair, let's acknowledge the natural strengths of academic fiction, the reason its fans like it in the first place, which can basically be boiled down to two main points: that unlike so-called "genre" fiction, most academic novels don't worry themselves too much with trying to come up with an action-filled plot, spending their time instead constructing complex and rewarding character studies of the people involved, and thus telling us more about the true human condition than most crime or horror or sci-fi novels do; and since they tend to be written by people who study language full-time and are designed for other people who study language full-time, such novels tend to be written at a poetically high level of quality, purposely ignoring the plebes in order to please those instead who demand that their pleasure reading be dense, witty and challenging. And 36 Arguments succeeds wildly at both of these things, essentially the story of an obscure east-coast academe whose specialty (combining the study of psychology and religion) usually gets poo-pooed by his more focused peers in both departments, until one day he writes a non-insulting guide to the "New Atheism" that accidentally becomes a runaway bestseller, and turns him into a famed pop-culture figure along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell or Richard Dawkins. (Why, he even gets to go on The Daily Show, an event that causes no end of jealousy among his peers.)
As you can already see, this is one of the first big ways that Goldstein sets herself apart from so many other academic authors: because even though her novel too is mostly a character study instead of plot-focused, she at least takes the time to come up with some fascinating situations in which to place her characters, and makes sure that her occasional big plot turns all count for as much as possible; because what this novel is really about is not the New Atheism bestseller itself but rather all the various relationships in this author Cass Seltzer's life, and the complex ways that both science and religion have ended up defining and shaping these relationships. Like Chabon's novel, then, this gives Goldstein an excuse to introduce a whole series of engaging, unique characters, ones who literally make the book a little brighter merely becuase of their interesting backgrounds: there is his former Hasidic mother, for example, now a modern urbanite who looks back on her youth with intellectual bitterness; Cass's girlfriend Roz from his student days, a "Singularity" obsessed hippie anthropologist who spends the '70s in the Amazon six months a year, and by the 2000s has founded a biochemical tech startup devoted to the quest of achieving human immortality; his next girlfriend after that, the judgmental and perfectionist French poet and rationality worshipper Pascale; then the next girlfriend after that, campus bigshot and famed game theorist Lucinda, who dresses like a punk and has a math theory named after her; and the man at the spiritual center of them all, the batsh-t crazy yet revered philosopher and academic mentor Jonas Elijah Klapper, who practically needs an entire book just to describe his wonderfully obtuse, utterly complicated personality.
The second big thing Goldstein does right, then, is to mix all these elements up, presenting a story out of narrative order yet with a "present day" thread of events holding things together -- and I should mention that on top of everything just mentioned, Goldstein stirs into this present-day mix a coming sold-out debate on the campus of Harvard with a Buckley-type neocon over the issue of whether God actually exists; a child math prodigy who happens to also be a sheltered Kabbalah Jew, being groomed against his will to be the island-dwelling community's next rebbe; a nervy and unhappy husband who's been a graduate student under Klapper for literally fifteen years, and who introduces Cass to the pleasures of drinking at dive bars with undergraduates; and a whole lot more, keeping us always on our toes even though ultimately not a whole lot actually "happens" over the course of this brainy, dialogue-heavy novel. Now combine this with Goldstein's superlative prose style, which manages to bridge the highbrow and lowbrow to a remarkably successful degree; and then add the bigger issues that are ultimately being discussed through this storyline (the purpose of academia, the nature of genius, actual science versus blind faith in science [what Klapper deems "scientism"], and yes, the existence of God), and you have yourself a densely intellectual yet quickly moving book, the exact definition of a perfect airport pick for well-read nerds.
In fact, about the only real criticism I have of 36 Arguments is at its very end, when Goldstein (an academic philosopher in real life, who is precisely known for using witty novels to explain philosophical issues) goes just a little too far, penning not only a 25-page literal transcript of an academic debate as the novel's finale, but a 50-page appendix afterwards that is literally a stand-alone philosophical treatise, the actual "36 Arguments" of the book's title along with Cass's supposed logical arguments against them all, which is so academically dense that I literally couldn't get past the second page. Like I said, though, these are the very last two elements of the book, and can be easily skipped by those like me with not much of an interest in the actual academic theories behind this book's plot; and in the meanwhile, with the other 350 pages Goldstein exactly succeeds at what she set out to do, humanizing these issues into a funny, charming, yet always intellectually stimulating story about relationships, religion and family. It makes me wish that all academic fiction would be this good, and makes me want to go buy a bunch of copies and slap them into the hands of every working lit professor I know. It comes highly recommended today for that crowd, and will be a keeper among a lot of the rest of you as well.
Out of 10: 9.3