(Author’s Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)
Summary: Sparkling writing; marvelous characters; could have benefited from a tighter narrative.
This is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a work of fiction for Daylight Atheism, but this one was well in tune with my site’s mission and merited the exception: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Despite the title, it’s a novel, not an academic textbook or a work of theology; and despite the title, it’s not an apologia for theism. If anything, the opposite is true. (Potential conflict of interest alert: Ms. Goldstein is the wife of Professor Steven Pinker, who served as the judge in a writing contest that I won, and who asked me if I’d be interested in reading the book.)
The main character of 36 Arguments is Cass Seltzer, an atheist psychology professor who’s found unexpected success and fame in a book debunking religion. Supporting characters include Lucinda Mandelbaum, his current significant other and a renowned mathematician; his old girlfriend, Roz Margolis, an anthropologist who’s researching life extension; Jonas Elijah Klapper, a windbag literary scholar who is Seltzer’s former mentor; and Azarya Sheiner, a young mathematical prodigy from an ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community.
Cass is a professor at the fictional Frankfurter University in Massachusetts, but has just received a job offer from Harvard and is mulling whether to accept it, while at the same time he prepares for a debate with a religious apologist that centers around the arguments in his best-selling book. But this story, though it takes place in the present (from the novel’s perspective), is arguably not the main one. In fact, there are several plot threads, and the story skips back and forth between them – each one chronicling a different time in Cass’ life, explaining how he met the other characters and how he came to be where he is at the novel’s beginning.
First things first: I loved Goldstein’s writing style. It’s sparkling, exuberant, erudite, leaping into paragraph-long sentences as if the author is breathlessly trying to narrate everything as fast as it happens. In its best moments, it achieves the sublime. She’s obviously thoroughly informed about the history and development of the atheist movement, and the way its defenders respond to criticism (some of the quotes will likely be familiar to you). And I loved the characters she crafts – so much so that I’d gladly read a sequel that follows up on some of them.
Azarya’s inner battle between his dreams of nurturing his mathematical gifts, and his desire to stay faithful to his community and its traditions, is compellingly depicted and evoked an unexpected pang of sympathy from me, even for a sect as insular and narrow-minded as Hasidic Judaism. Cass is a glowingly sympathetic protagonist – for once, a novel that treats atheism as a normal and even sympathetic viewpoint, and not as a disease that a character has to be cured of! – and when he celebrates his good fortune, the reader is drawn in to celebrate with him, to make his triumphs our own and to share his fear that they may all be snatched away. And when, at the end, he steps up to the podium to do battle with his adversary, we’re cheering him on (well, I was). And Roz, especially, was a magnificent creation, a tigerish free spirit who makes an already bright book even brighter whenever she appears in it.
There was only one character I didn’t like, and that leads me to my one major complaint. Cass’ mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, was pompous, egotistical, and insufferably self-absorbed – and I have no doubt that Goldstein intended us to find him so – but then, why does he have so much face time in the book? The plot noticeably drags whenever he appears, and in fact, the plot thread that involves him is never really brought to a satisfying resolution.
To tell the truth, for all that I liked about it, the book in general could have used a tighter narrative focus. There’s not really a single, overarching plot that drives the story as much as there is a series of extended episodes from the life of its major character, and the “main” story – the one that occurs in the novel’s present, rather than being backstory – has a fairly anticlimactic ending. There were several intriguing plot threads, especially Roz’s involvement with a group studying life extension, that offer tantalizing possibilities but never really develop. Some of these have enough potential to be books in and of themselves, and if they ever do, I’d be glad to read them.