36 Arguments for the Existence of God: a Work of Fiction
By Rebecca Goldstein
In Britain, cleverness is regarded as at once praiseworthy and not wholly admirable. Perhaps that is why Rebecca Goldstein has not yet achieved the same level of success here as she has done in her native United States. Her latest work of fiction, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, seems designed to keep things that way.
Try to sum it up and it sounds less like a novel than an IQ test. The titular 36 arguments are the appendix to a fictional book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, by Goldstein's protagonist Cass Seltzer, "atheist with a soul". That is, until his publisher persuades him to make the arguments the main bulk of the book, creating a bestseller in the process. The arguments also turn up as an appendix to Goldstein's novel, which contains 36 chapters, all with titles of arguments for the existence of God. So the 36 arguments are a novel, the appendix to that novel, and the appendix to a non-fiction book within the fiction.
Not only that, but the book is populated almost entirely by really clever people. Seltzer's girlfriend is the hot-shot neuroscientist Lucinda Mandelbaum. His mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, is a mad genius whose university created a department just for him. His potential nemesis is an economist and Nobel laureate, Felix Fidley. And then there's a subplot involving a mathematical prodigy from a fictional Hasidic Jewish sect, the Valdeners.
Spending 344 pages in the company of hand-picked members of Mensa has its rewards. Eavesdropping on the frighteningly smart allows the reader to indulge in the fantasy that some of their brilliance is rubbing off. But neither the characters nor their ideas are enough to power the narrative, which rarely moves out of second gear. The problem is that little of consequence happens. There's "relationship stuff", but the Seltzer-Mandelbaum partnership is fine, rather than made in heaven, so it is hard to care whether they stick together or not.
There is also an attempt to inject some drama in a near-climactic debate between Seltzer and Fidley. For anyone who hasn't seen two big brains go head to head on the question of God's existence, it is a wonderfully lucid synopsis of some of the more intelligent arguments you would be likely to hear. But ultimately it doesn't really matter who wins or loses, and so, as drama, it falls flat.
The most engaging thread in the book is the story of the prodigy, six-year-old Azarya Sheiner. What is being explored here is the tension between the values of community, tradition and belonging on the one hand, and those of truth, reason and developing individual potential on the other. In this section of the novel, Goldstein lets the characters and the action play out these dilemmas, without too much commentary from either the narrative voice or other characters. In so doing, she creates a world with real life.
The pages turn less swiftly when we are in academe, which seems sterile in comparison. Perhaps that is the point. If so, it seems the weight of this book's many ideas slows down the vehicle that carries them.
Julian Baggini is the author of "Do They Think You're Stupid? One Hundred Ways of Spotting Spin and Nonsense from the Media, Pundits and Politicians" (Granta Books, £8.99)