Just so we’re clear, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s book 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is a work of fiction. And yet, it’s kinda not. As they say, it’s complicated. Or, as my professor of Judaism in grad school used to say in the type of grad-school lingo often parodied it Goldstein’s book, “it’s not UNcomplicated.” Thus, whether you like it or not (and my book group found it pretty divisive), you probably won’t find it UNinteresting.
Goldstein has a background in philosophy and mathematics, and was raised as an Orthodox Jew. All these aspects and more are woven through the novel. She has written both fiction and non-fiction, and her philosophy colleagues tend to view her fiction forays with suspicion, as she notes in this weird book trailer where her husband, the cognitive psychologist Steve Pinker, talks with her about it, yet never identifies her as his spouse. It also features a lot of stilted shots of Goldstein on a ladder in their impressive library. As I said, weird.
It’s a 400+ page novel with a 60-page appendix that contains the 36 arguments of the title. I found the appendix and the parts of the book that were very philosophically argumentative less interesting, and the morality tale of the characters involving and fascinating.
Some readers in my book group reacted negatively to the esoteric verbiage of the overtly philosophical sections. As one noted jokingly, it made her feel “stoopid.” Others reacted to how lengthy these sections were, and noted they tended to drag, especially as compared to the novel, featuring a religion professor named Cass Seltzer.
In that weird book trailer, Goldstein coyly claims that it’s a misconception that characters are based in reality. And yet, there are a lot of ringers in her books generally. Compare this photo of the author’s ex-husband, mathematician Sheldon (”Shelly”) Goldstein:
and this description:
handsome, but not in a way to make the squeamish consider indeterminate sexual orientention, Cass has a fundamental niceness written all over him. He’s got a strong jaw, a high ovoid forehead from this his floppy auburn hair is only just slightly receding, and the sweetest more earnest smile this side of Oral Roberts University. (11)
Some reviews have noted likenesses between characters and real people, most especially Jonas Elijah Klapper as Harold Bloom, but there’s also likeness between Sy Auerbach and literary agent John Brockman, and another minor character interested in immortality (can’t remember the link.)
There’s also more than a passing resemblance between Goldstein herself and Cass’ girlfriend, Lucinda Mandelbaum, the “goddess of game theory”: who is described as grey-eyed, beautiful, graceful and more throughout. One of the many things I found interesting in this was that if Goldstein is going to write herself into the novel, why do it as an unlikeable Mary Sue? (I wondered, could this book be like an apology to her first husband, a la Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, where Lucinda is young and mean to the sensitive guy?)
I’ve gone on here, and haven’t even gotten to main parts of the story and other characters. It’s an interesting satire of academia, and of new atheists. It fictionally presents the question whether there’s any point in trying to prove the existence of God.
My advice on reading, if you think this sounds interesting: read the novel, then the appendix, and skim the parts that you find slow, since the narrative wanders and does not have consistent momentum. And yet, I do recommend it. It made me think, and still has me thinking.