Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Novel of Ideas that Might Give You Some if You're Not Careful

36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (subtitled “A Work of Fiction”)

This is one of those novels – I seem to read a lot of them – I liked very much but I’m not sure who its ideal audience is. Perhaps one of y’all. Does this sound like something you might enjoy?:

[NO SPOILERS] First, every major character in this novel is Jewish. There is a lot of material here about Judaism of many varieties, and some of the finest scenes are set in “America’s only shtetl,” named here New Walden, where the residents maintain a strictly orthodox way of life. Second, every major character in this novel is a brilliant academic intellectual, and I do mean brilliant, and I do mean academic. Most of the novel is set on campuses, fictional and not, within spitting distance of the Eastern Seaboard. They are not only brilliant, they are the most brilliant in the world in their (sometimes competing) fields. The brilliant characters who are not academic are brilliant religious intellectuals. The plot centers on Cass Seltzer, a lapsed Jew who has written a celebrated book examining The Varieties of Religious Illusion,” and has earned a reputation as “the atheist with a soul.” The plot is difficult to summarize, but I will say only that the drama of the book arises out of the tension between his relationships with several strong (similarly lapsed) women and several strongly religious and charismatic men with whom he studies or otherwise encounters on his path to popular acclaim.

The foregoing description makes the book sound strident, biased against religion, and perhaps even sexist. And perhaps dull. And while Ms. Goldstein’s own thoughts on the existence of God are not hard to discern, I must report that I did not find the book offensive in this respect and hardly polemical at all. In fact, while I used the word “drama” in the last paragraph, the novel is comic in intention and effect. I found myself smiling throughout (and even issuing that rarity, the occasional laugh-out-loud), perhaps because in my own education and life I have encountered similar characters.

And it is not dull.  Even if those characters don't sound familiar to you, you can still get a kick out of this book. The writing is lively, if erudite, and there are some very fine passages the equal of any pure writing I’ve read in quite some time.

The book has two flaws, one bordering on serious, one less so. The more serious flaw is that Cass, the central character, although – yes, a brilliant academic intellectual – is weak, both intentionally (he’s kind of a schnook) and in portrayal (he’s not fully realized, although he appears in almost every scene). Goldstein can write strong, vivid male characters, both attractive and not, so it is curious that Cass is so bland. It put me in mind of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” You needed Mary to tell those stories, but the comic freight was borne by Lou and Murray and Sue Ann and Ted and Rhoda. Not that Mary was not a fine comedienne and sometimes funny in the show – just that her role was frequently to react to the spicier characters around her. That seems to be Cass’s function throughout much of this novel, although he will get off a zinger now and then. Nothing we hear from him in the book prepares us for his final tour-de-force performance.

The lesser flaw is that sometimes Ms. Goldstein forces ideas into the novel through excessive speechifying. I was reminded of another famous female atheist writer, Ayn Rand. The sometimes lengthy speeches are so lucid – on both sides of the existence-of-God question – that they are unlikely ever to have been uttered in the contexts in which they appear.

The novel concludes with an Appendix (as appeared in Cass’s own famous book) setting forth 36 arguments for the existence of God, with commentary, “flaws,” and asides. In reading some of the Amazon reviews of the book, some readers take her to task for misrepresenting these arguments, but they looked pretty neutrally-couched to me. Ah, but Ms. Goldstein is sly – I wrote “the novel concludes,” but it is unclear whether the Appendix is in fact novelistic – something that Cass himself penned in “The Varieties of Religious Illusion” – or only Ms. Goldstein’s helpful summary of the current (and ancient) debate.

Ms. Goldstein is a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and has written on a variety of philosophical topics, including a popular account of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (which, I was surprised to discover, I own, but which, I was not surprised to discover, I have not read). She is married to famed cognitive scientist and brainworks popularizer Steven Pinker. She’s also kinda waifish-hot, which does lead one to wonder whether perhaps she identifies with one of the hot female genius Jewish academic intellectuals in the book (who, I concede, is not a very appealing character).

Here’s where I come out:  You don’t see novels like this much anymore. I drastically reduced my reading of “serious” American fiction about twenty years ago when I wearied of dull, minimalistic writing about unappealing upper-middle-class men and women and their agonizingly uninteresting lives and loves. There are signs that things are changing. Goldstein’s characters are vivid (Cass notably excepted), her prose robust and sometimes challenging (and sometimes arch). The thing crackles with intelligence and curiosity and respect for the reader. That’s plenty good enough for me.

*     *     *

Follow Your Cool Hot Center on Twitter:  @CoolHotCenter

No comments:

Post a Comment