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'36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction' by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

The author creates a fascinating collection of interlaced characters who tangle with religious, philosophical, academic and romantic pursuits.

January 17, 2010|By Jane Smiley
(Luke Best / For The Times )

36 Arguments for

the Existence of God

A Work of Fiction

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Pantheon: 402 pp., $27.95

The night I began reading Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's "36 Arguments for the Existence of God," I didn't get far before I fell asleep. But I did have good dreams all night long: well-lit, active and good-natured, just like Goldstein's writing style. For the next few days, I viewed this phenomenon as a potential side-effect but not a guarantee. Then I finished the novel and had good dreams again -- optimistic, celebratory, full of disagreement followed by reconciliation, though not exactly funny, which was too bad because "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" is quite funny. You don't find that very often in books with "God" in the title.

Call me a skeptic. Whatever Goldstein's case -- her book is arranged in 36 chapters, each positing a particular argument, in a sense -- I didn't think she would win me over. But she did carry me through a narrative that is more intellectual brief than plot. One advantage Goldstein exploits is that her protagonist, Cass Seltzer, bestselling "atheist-with-a-soul," is a tall, good-looking schlemiel who has hit the jackpot in spite of himself -- famous book, beautiful academic star for a girlfriend and, as we find in the first chapter, a job offer from Harvard nestled warmly in his coat pocket.

Cass knows it didn't have to be this way; chapter by chapter, we find out why. Goldstein incorporates it all into Cass' experience, but also into her arguments for (or against) the existence of God. That may make the present action of the novel short on drama, but Cass' tale is long on characters.

Goldstein's most recent book was a 2006 biography of Baruch Spinoza, and before that she wrote about Kurt Gödel. She is not shy about addressing the knottiest philosophical concepts along with the psychological oddities of the men who originated them. Both hemispheres of her brain have long been fully operational: She received a PhD from Princeton in 1977, and her first novel, "The Mind-Body Problem," appeared in 1983.

We may presume that she has seen her share of egomaniacs, and "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" is the fruit of her experience. She seems to find such people more amusing than offensive, but this doesn't mean she cannot skewer them high and low.

Take Jonas Elijah Klapper (né Klepfish) -- a man of capacious memory as well as capacious belly. Extreme Distinguished Professor Klapper has made not only an icon but also an entire department of himself at a certain university not far from Harvard, and he has surrounded himself with acolytes (oh, I mean graduate students). He has strict requirements for those to whom he would impart his wisdom: They must park all their ambitions at his office door, and independent thinking of any sort is to be abjured.

Cass has a flair for adoration, which he seems to mix up with ignorance and confusion. The more he doesn't understand what someone is saying, the more he wants to and so attaches himself to the Incomprehensible. Not himself a monster, but more a self-doubter and a nice guy, he projects his doubts (as well as his kindness) onto others.

For Goldstein, the keys to the novel are not just science and culture but also religion, and an important and entertaining component of "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" is New Walden, the Hasidic settlement in New Jersey ("American's only shtetl") that Cass' mother has escaped to in her own quest for fulfillment. The rebbe of New Walden produces 11 daughters and one son, a brilliant and adorable mathematical genius who is, maybe, the sacrificial lamb of the novel. But maybe not. Goldstein's elucidation of the precise nature of his prodigiousness reminds those of us who barely got through 10th grade algebra that there is a higher purpose for the female mind, which is to make fun of guys while also appreciating them.

Goldstein does not stint on female characters. As a good-looking and eligible academic, Cass has had his pick. Unfortunately, he chooses women who are more adventurous than he is, much to the reader's delight.

Of course, Albert Einstein is the theologian here, insofar as he opined that God does not play dice with the universe. Human authors are much more amusing than God, and one of the pleasures of "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" is Goldstein's willingness to torment her creatures for our pleasure. They have free will, or at least they think they do, and if not, what's the difference? But their choices are dictated by conditioning more than chance or aspiration. Even when they are transcending, they are making fools of themselves. Their creator never damns them, though -- the worst are doomed to proclaim their greatness to the Void, while the deserving get to eat well and fall in love.

The rare thing that Goldstein does to excellent effect is to sustain her discourse -- her arguments and her puns and her jokes and her descriptions and her comparisons and contrasts -- subsiding only very occasionally into a tone more explanatory. Her style is so effervescent and knowing that even if we have only the dimmest grasp of certain concepts, we are carried along. And so "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" is also an education in math, philosophy, academia, psychology and Jewish culture.

It is, in fact, a lovely dream.

Smiley's latest novel is "The Georges and the Jewels," a horse book for girls.

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