Canongate, 1,030pp, £20
T S Eliot, in his 1923 essay on Ulysses, praises what he terms its "mythical method". To his mind, Joyce's use of the Odyssey to frame and organise the chaotic everydayness of Dublin was "a way of controlling, of ordering, of giv-ing shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history".
It is hard not to think of Eliot's essay as one reads Adam Levin's monstrously long novel The Instructions, as it encases a panoramic presentation of the anarchic and banal rhythms of a US junior high school within a plot that eventually - in the very long run - takes on a pseudo-mythological, messianic shape.
The novel centres on four days in the life of Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, a precociously brilliant but also persistently violent ten-year-old in suburban Illinois, who has been kicked out of a string of schools for misbehaviour and is now serving time in the CAGE - a classroom at Aptakisic Junior High designed specifically for problem students.
The conceit established at the opening of the novel is that the text we are reading is ostensibly a work of Jewish scripture, written by the preternaturally learned Gurion and subsequently "translated and retranslated from the Hebrew and the English by Eliyahu of Brooklyn and Emmanuel Liebman". Furthermore, we are warned (or promised) that something will happen by the end of the work, as a "publisher's note" explains that Gurion is facing prosecution for crimes relating to "the Damage Proper", "the 11/17 Miracle" and other events pertaining to the "Gurionic War".
However, it takes an enormous number of pages to get to the events in question. Much of Levin's novel is composed of digressions, and digressions from digressions, on a wide array
of topics. The social dynamics of middle-school bullying receive interminable dissection, as do the vicissitudes of obtaining a hall pass, negotiations of school principals and similar matters. The telling of the story of Gurion's parents' meeting and marriage and his birth is punctuated by drifting turns into ponderously explored substories: the effects of his mother preferring chicken that wasn't kosher, because kosher chicken is covered with "wispy little hairs in the feather-holes", the effects of her having stepped - in violation of a Jewish superstition - on a clipped toenail while pregnant with him, and so on.
The Instructions is stocked to the brim with what is called at one point the "school-specific vernacular" of Aptakisic Junior High, and at times the readers - and even the characters - can struggle to keep up with the argot. A "bancer" is the local version of "jerk" or "dork" or "nerd". "Desormiate", to cite another example, means "to perv the world", a coinage inspired by the surname of the school's gym teacher Mr Desormie, who appears daily "in shorts that his wang stretched the crotch of". The kids "caulk" when they feel they are losing face (that is, when they "trickle"), they are "chomsky" when hypocritical, and they become infatuated with their truly interesting and "sexy" female schoolmates, rather than the more ordinary "Jennys/Ashleys" who fill the classrooms. To lose one's concentration, true to the milieu and its brushes with psychopharmacology, is to have one's "A get D'd", as in "my Attention got Deficited".
All of this is good fun in parts, but Levin goes too far as he leads his readers through one long digression after another. Although novelistic longueurs can be deployed to great effect (think of Proust), sometimes a boring anecdote is just a boring anecdote. Throughout the novel, the plot springs into motion only intermittently - there's a love story between Gurion and a non-Jewish girl named Eliza June Watermark - and it is only at the end of the book that things kick into motion. The last few hundreds of pages centre on a prolonged action sequence, in which the militia of boys that Gurion has been assembling try to overthrow the school disciplinarians, a climax that ends with a frustrating intrusion of what seems to be the first ever literary case of Mossad ex machina. By the time the reader gets to this ridiculous ending, almost anything would have felt like too little, too late, given what he or she has had to navigate to get there.
Gurion's narration - or Levin's performance of Gurion's narration - seems persistently self-aware of the novel's problems. At one point, when discussing his scripture with a character named Arthur Flowers (a black, avuncular, mystical sounding board for the protagonist), Gurion writes:
I'd never skip a paragraph in a book I was reading - I was too afraid to miss something important - but I sometimes wished I was the kind of person who would skip a paragraph because then all I'd do is read the dialogue and the action. Those were the only parts of books I ever really enjoyed. The conflict parts. The parts where people act on things and words and other people.
A reader and writer, Gurion is the latest novelistic iteration of the child genius - yet another wunderkind who is at once effortlessly multilingual but a little bit confused about what one is supposed to do with girls. The "kid genius" meme seems to be symptomatically American, from Mark Twain's Huck Finn to Oskar Schell in Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. America is a country that prefers its brilliance (or pretentiousness) topped with thick pats of naivety and pre-adolescent semi-innocence.
We are left with a sense that the protagonist is a model of his author. The faux artlessness of Levin's digressions, the posed credulity of seeming not to understand that he is asking his readers for something they wouldn't want to give, seem to serve as a screening veil for an author clearly smart enough to write a taut and economical work of fiction instead of this.
Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in the English department of University College London