A Very Long History of Very Brief Violence: Adam Levin’s Brutal Comedy of Manners

adam levin author photo A Very Long History of Very Brief Violence: Adam Levin’s Brutal Comedy of MannersThe thing about long novels that take place over a single day or a few days is that nothing really happens. Ulysses is two men talking and walking. The Ramsays never reach the lighthouse in To the Lighthouse, and Virginia Woolf treats the rare moments of action as afterthoughts. (Mrs. Ramsay’s death gets all of seven words. They are bracketed in parentheses.) The tradition stops with modernism. The endlessness of a single day–a function stylistically of the disorderly projections of Freud’s “talking cure”–served as an emblem of the individual’s mortality. The structure became a relic of the surge of lugubrious trauma in the era between the World Wars. Even Woolf, writing in her diary around the time she was finishing her edits for Jacob’s Room, said Ulysses was “pretentious.”

Four days pass in Adam Levin’s The Instructions. A first novel of 1,030 pages, it borrows the constructions and themes of high modernism–the stream of consciousness, self-preservation of the individual in the face of major social disruptions, a story pieced together through methods beyond a typical narrator (emails, local news report transcripts, official files from a permanent record)–but also advances these principles into a new realm.

Gurion ben-Judah Macabee, the book’s 10-year-old boy hero, may be the messiah of the Jewish faith. His fellow students call him “Rabbi.” They stand in line at the playground to ask his advice. He has been expelled from three schools (two Hebrew schools and one public school) in four months for violent fighting and for equipping his followers with “pennyguns”–two-liter plastic soda bottles with their tops sawed off and the caps removed, balloons secured to the bottles’ mouths. A penny, or a heavier object such as a quarter or a wing nut, is placed inside the balloon, which is subsequently pulled back in order to launch the projectile. This is the tool of revolution in The Instructions. Arming his followers with these homemade weapons, Gurion incites a rebellion at Aptakisic Junior High School–the hegemonic public school where he is kept from studying Torah–against the school’s teachers, hall monitors and bullying students. These enemy parties, collectively, are referred to as “The Arrangement,” and the conflict is mythologized as “the Gurionic War.”

The Instructions opens with Gurion and two friends waterboarding one another during free swim, introducing the reader to Mr. Levin’s whimsically brutal series of contradictions. The scene is both absurd (free swim!) and frightening–the friends do attempt to drown one another. Their reason for doing so is not childish cruelty but rather an attempt to learn in the moment just before death which is more terrifying: “My best friends are about to accidentally drown me!” or “My best friends are actually trying to drown me!” In other words, being misunderstood versus feeling betrayed.

As the boys slowly count the seconds while holding each other’s heads underwater, the menacing gymnasium clock ticks away, reminding the reader how little time has passed, how the reality of reading the novel takes much longer than the events therein. Each chapter break tells us how much time will pass in the pages following, rendering us ever more aware of the novel’s sense of time and less and less aware of our own as we read on. Gurion, throughout the book, will attempt to destroy the clock, to stop the time, in order to impress Eliza June Westmark. For Gurion, the clock is the symbol of the authority that keeps him stunted throughout the book, the one object standing between him and escape from The Arrangement and freedom. For the reader, the clock is equally foreboding–a reminder that one’s own sense of time and place is separate from the book, that when the novel is finished, the clock will stop ticking indefinitely, and life will continue as usual.

In the 100 hours that pass between that opening scene and the Gurionic War, as much happens as in any modernist epic. Which is to say a lot of little things occur that amount to the much larger concept of being alive in all its glory and mediocrity: Gurion offers advice, students argue, the genealogy of middle-school nicknames is traced, people fall in and out of love, they walk and talk. There is a scene in which Gurion’s father, Judah, a civil rights attorney who defends anti-Semites and neo-Nazis, is pushed outside of the courtroom by a group of protestors. He tears a ligament. Gurion, in a lengthy soliloquy, justifies the injury through a close reading of Avraham and Hashem’s conversation on the eve of Sodom’s destruction. The injury’s anticlimax is akin to Joyce’s Socratic description of Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom urinating behind Bloom’s house in Ulysses.

Even within its limited time frame, The Instructions is a coming-of-age tale, a story of Gurion preparing for his war, a novel that feels like it unfolds over decades rather than an abridged school week. The way Mr. Levin both compresses and prolongs the traditional Bildungsroman structure makes for a bizarre reading experience. This is a life-consuming novel, one that demands to be read feverishly. When it is over, other fiction feels insufficient, the newspaper seems irrelevant.

Strangest of all, though, the rebellion, rather than being elided in an authorial sleight of hand, actually transpires. The Arrangement is not some metaphor for the unending grip of authority, nor is Gurion’s abnormal intelligence a false prophecy. He takes Aptakisic hostage with the aid of his pennygun-equipped followers. Up to this point, we have read for nearly 800 pages because of Gurion’s charm, his brilliance, his ability to interpret his friends’ behavior in a game of “slap-slap” as he would a passage of Torah.

The reader’s enchantment pays off. A pep rally for the basketball team–basically the Romans to Gurion’s Jews–culminates in a 200-page battle. The evil gym teacher is murdered, his carotid artery punctured by a flying wing nut; the principal is bound, gagged and tied to the bleachers; the bullies are struck down by pennies, the blood mixing with the dried sweat on the gymnasium floor; Gurion, on the phone with a hostage negotiator, demands to speak to Philip Roth–“the last great Jew,” he says–and Roth gets on the phone with him. “Boychic,” says the writer, “you should let these kids go.” The police, the fire department and SWAT teams barricade the school, unsure how to deal with a hostage situation orchestrated by a 10-year-old.

As several hundred of Gurion’s followers from his former schools approach Aptakisic armed with pennyguns, Gurion fires a lone wing nut at the indestructible gymnasium clock. The glass shatters, and time stops. There is no sense of anything outside of the novel now. “I did that for you,” Gurion tells his love–and Mr. Levin, in code, tells his readers. “Thanks,” she says. If the ultimate message of modernism was unremitting pessimism (“We perish each alone,” Woolf writes in To the Lighthouse, a conceit matched only by Joyce’s “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”), The Instructions has given the literary genre its long deferred conclusion: Indeed, a day–or four–can serve as a reminder that death looms large for anything living, but there is lot of life to be lived in the interim.

mmiller@observer.com