36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (Pantheon Books, 2009) by Rachel Goldstein is structured around a conceit—each chapter is given the title of one of the thirty-six arguments. An appendix to the novel explains and refutes each argument. The chapter contents sometimes do correlate with the argument named in the chapter title, and sometimes do not. As I read, I became increasingly interesting in identifying connections between chapters and their titles, and ultimately gave up trying. This aspect of the novel’s organization to me seems clever but also contrived. I enjoyed a previous novel by Goldstein, Particles of Light. There she employs concepts from physics to advance the narrative. Goldstein is a novelist of ideas, and she aims her novels at readers who will understand and appreciate the worlds she writes about. Even when her novel may seems unsuccessful, the situations and ideas she explores are interesting. Even trying to decipher the structure of this novel was a rewarding engagement, though ultimately one that disappointed.
36 Arguments moves between the main character Cass Seltzer’s years as a graduate student working under a famous professor‘s tutelage and his adult success as the writer of an academic study that makes him famous. 36 Arguments is an academic novel—it’s about the academy and the academic ego, especially the egos of those ambitious for the kind of fame that research in the academy offers. Some pursue fame avidly, while others, like Cass Seltzer, stumble into it. He writes a book entitled Varieties of Religious Illusion that explains the psychological attractions of religion. It contains an appendix listing the 36 arguments of the title. This appendix becomes the basis of his fame, and he is labeled an “atheist with a soul.” There is also the fame (and ego) of the eminence grise Jonas Elijah Klapper, a truly monumental and oppressive figure who has outlived whatever fame he once had. Opposed to the modern, a defender of tradition, he invokes arguments and speaks in a language that make no sense. He gathers around him an entourage of graduate students (Cass among them) and ensures that most of them never graduate. And there is the ambitious yearning for fame of Seltzer’s romantic partner, Lucinda Mandelbaum.
The academic dimension of the novel is satiric. The religious dimension is not. While Cass argues that religion is an attractive illusion, he is nonetheless attracted to it himself. Raised in a Hassidic community by a mother who later breaks with Hassidism, he has lived in the secular world all of his life. Many of the scenes describing the “New Walden” Hassidic community and Cass’s interest in the Rebbe’s son, a mathematical genius, are quite moving.
Cass is a sympathetic character who has had a number of unsuccessful romantic relationships. Is he a hapless victim who hasn’t a clue as to why these entanglements failed, or is he somehow responsible for their failures? He is likeable, but Lucinda breaks up with him when he tells her that Harvard has offered him a position. She accuses him of a number of sins, and although she is jealous of his success, at least some of her accusations are just.