As a novel of ideas, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God succeeds magnificently but as a novel of manners, a Jewish novel, or just a novel it fails to reach its potential.
There is a story or stories lurking underneath or behind the action of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new novel that she does not explicitly present but which I think she consciously alludes to: the story of the search for God in the seventeenth century. The players or protagonists of this hidden story are Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Malebranche, Arnauld, and Newton; but Ms Goldstein keeps this story on the low down, even though she has written one of the best books around on Spinoza, a thinker who is emerging as one of the seminal thinkers of the modern age. There is also another story, just as important as the first, which she doesn't explicitly refer to and that is the role that mathematics and logic play in the theories of God and human understanding. Here too her true protagonists--Wittgenstein, Godel and Newton--are also hidden, although she does create several characters who are mathematicians and she has Cass Seltzer, her revealed protagonist, repeat some of the same conclusions as her hidden protagonists.
What she does reveal on the surface is her dependence or I should say Cass Seltzer's dependence on the writings of William James and Sigmund Freud. And even though Cass Seltzer states that he is indebted to James' Varieties of Religious Experience and Freud's The Future of an Illusion, I would argue that it is really Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise that we should look to understand Cass' position.
But Cass is not just concerned with the arguments for the existence of God but also the psychology of the religious function in man, because he knows that in the long run that it does not matter if we say, like Nietzsche, that God is dead and believe it, the truth of the matter is that man created God and he will resurrect him in one form or another every time that someone buries our God or the current version of our God. The idea of God is immanent in man and cannot be overcome, so we must say, like Rilke, that we are bees producing the honey of god. It is through us that God comes to know himself.
Consequently, I believe that from the standpoint of a book of ideas, Ms Goldstein's book achieves its purpose brilliantly; however, as a novel it fails to achieve its potential. And when I say fails to achieve its potential, I don't mean to say it is uninteresting because it is nor that is not a page-turner because it is. What I mean to say is that it fails as a novel in the sense that it fails to develop its characters and plot fully. There is so much here and yet so much that is undeveloped or ignored.
A story can be illustrated like this: the king dies and the queen dies, while a plot can be illustrated like this: the king dies and the queen dies of grief. I feel that we get a good story filled with fascinating ideas but we don't get a finished and polished plot.
Ms. Goldstein creates several characters, most of whom are full of potential as characters, but then she lets them wander out of the novel without dramatizing their exit. Her most successful character is Roz Margolis, an anthropologist, and ex-lover of Cass Seltzer; her most unsuccessful characters are Lucinda Mandelbaum and Pascal Puissant, who seem to be caricatures. Two characters that should have dominated the book but seem almost, at the end, as add-ons are Azarya, the Rebbe of the Valdeners, and Jonas Klapper, the maniacal professor, who envisions himself as the latest messiah. Interestedly, both Klapper and Azarya are gaons, geniuses who become to their followers and in the case of Klapper to himself, messiahs. This is an interesting idea and as a theme, perhaps one of the most interesting in a book choc-a-block with interesting themes and ideas. However, it is not fully developed, just mentioned.
Cass, in my opinion, is the weakest character in the novel. His motivations and beliefs should have been our main concern. His conflicts arising from his Hasidic heritage should have been the main thrust. Instead, we get a weak-willed man wandering through Boston, manipulated by wives, lovers, and despots.
Nevertheless, in the final analysis, we must judge a novel on how much we think about it after we put it down and how much it disturbs us at night as we try to fall asleep. In the case of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, I am still thinking about it days after I finished and I am still arguing with Cass Seltzer.