Book Quote:

“When Cass, in all the safety of his obscurity, set about writing a book that would explain how irrelevant the belief in God can be to religious experience — so irrelevant that the emotional structure of religious experiences can be transplanted to completely godless contexts with little of the impact lost — and when he had also, almost as an afterthought, included as an appendix thirty-six arguments for the existence of God, with rebuttals, […] he’d had no idea of the massive response his efforts would provoke.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate (FEB 20, 2011)

With a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton, Guggenheim and MacArthur (genius) awards, several novels, and non-fiction studies of Gödel and Spinoza under her belt, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is nobody’s fool. But I can’t decide whether her decision to populate her latest novel exclusively with people like herself is good or bad. Set in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, partly at Harvard but mainly at another elite university which might be a fictionalized Brandeis, the entire cast of characters seems to consist of academic philosophers, psychologists, mathematicians, or theologians, all determined to prove that they are smarter than anybody else. Readers who enjoyed the intellectual name-dropping of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of a Hedgehog might well like this, but it can be hard going. I soon began to wish for at least one character who did not know the Wittgenstein Paradox or Heideggerian Hermeneutics inside out. After about 80 pages, however, I found myself drawn into the strange world of the book, for three main reasons. I list them in increasing order of importance.

1. Goldstein can be very funny. There is splendid scene when the great professor Jonas Elijah Klapper (think Harold Bloom) makes a state visit to the Valdener Rebbe, head of a Hasidic sect headquartered in a building described as “A Costco that had found God.” In the ensuing dialogue, the professor tries hard to impress with obscure references to early Jewish mystics, while the Rebbe merely wants to discuss how best to secure federal matching funds. Nevertheless Klapper treats this as deep rabbinical wisdom expressed in parables, silencing a doubter with the words: “You are the sort who, should she witness the Messiah walking on water, would be impressed that his socks had not shrunk.”

2. The chief character, Cass Selzer, is the least pretentious of the lot and really very likeable. A psychologist, he has recently published VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS ILLUSION, vaulting him to the New York Times bestseller list and a Time Magazine feature as “The atheist with a soul.” The 36 Arguments of the book’s title form the appendix to Selzer’s book, reprinted as a 50-page appendix to the novel. Each argument is laid out in clear syllogistic form only to be dismissed by equally clear analysis of its flaws. But for the most part, Cass leaves the logical legerdemain to the appendix. As a character in the story, he speaks normal conversational English, and is really quite sympathetic as he moves from hero-worship to rejection of the monstrous Klapper, and tries to find a life partner among a sequence of dauntingly brilliant women.

3. The book does indeed have a soul. The visit to the Valdener Rebbe (a distant relative of Cass) is more than a comic tour-de-force. Cass also meets the Rebbe’s son, Azarya, clearly a mathematical genius and as lovable for his personality as amazing in his desire for knowledge. At the age of only six, he explains discoveries in number theory that he has made by himself, describing the various classes of primes as orders of angels as real to him as Cherubim and Seraphim. Uniquely, he unites religion and science, not as opposites, but in a single world view. There is a great set-piece which is an ecstatic description of a “shabbes tish” or ceremonial meal, which draws me further into the spirit of Hasidic life than anything I have read before, including Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Towards the end of the book, Cass argues against the existence of God in a public debate at Harvard. But the last chapter is not left to the arguments of philosophers but to another celebration at the Valdener shul, a glowing scene that somehow makes the entire debate almost irrelevant.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 70 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage (February 1, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Rebecca Goldstein
EXTRAS: 36 Arguments website with excerpts and reading guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More on the subject of God:

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February 20, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, NE & New York, Reading Guide, Theme driven, Unique Narrative, y Award Winning Author

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