36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Not only does Rebecca Goldstein’s newest novel demonstrate obvious brilliance in her own field (philosophy), it also reveals her to be a fearlessly inquisitive writer in several other disparate disciplines. 36 Arguments drifts from her investigation of mathematical theorems to a wide spectrum of advanced psychological research to Kabbalistic interpretations of the potato kugel, all while cleverly satirizing the twin banality and savagery of the academic world.
That’s not to say the book works, exactly. It’s a smart novel filled with smart ideas—most of which end up completely overshadowing the characters espousing them. The center of the book’s philosophical pinwheel, and the only person who remains bearable or even believable from beginning to end, is Cass Seltzer, an “atheist with a soul,” who becomes a sudden prophet of the New Atheist movement upon the publication of his book The Varieties of Religious Illusion. The book’s key feature is an appendix cataloging thirty-six of the most persuasive arguments for the existence of God, and Cass’s refutations of each one. Thankfully, Goldstein actually includes this appendix: it’s the best section of the novel, not only because it’s astute and engaging, but because the only character you have to deal with is Cass.
Most of the secondary characters are over-explained into caricature. Goldstein would really like you to understand that Cass’s ex-wife Pascale is French: she is permanently in high heels and red lipstick, and she speaks with that dainty “how you say…?” quality. I’m Canadian, but that doesn’t mean I always carry hockey sticks and maple syrup.
By default, then, the novel’s main players become Goldstein’s sharp and varied observations, which keep the novel fascinating and surprising. For every “brandy-glass-shaped breast” (dubious descriptions abound), there’s a beautiful phrase like “it isn’t always sensible to be rational”: these moments capture the greatest existential question of all time in a way only Goldstein, under the influence of such contrasting figures as William James, Gödel and Spinoza, can pull off.