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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Adam Levin: American literary influences on The Instructions

The Instructions
by Adam Levin
(McSweeney's, 2010)
For the first entry in a new series of blog posts by novelists, historians, essayists, and poets, we asked novelist Adam Levin what great American works of fiction influenced the writing of his 1100-page, critically acclaimed debut novel, The Instructions.

Nearly every reviewer has noted the range of Levin’s literary influences. Praising Levin’s “uncanny facility for blending sympathy and satire,” Maud Newton writes, “The Instructions really does recall Infinite Jest. Other forbears—Roth, Salinger, Cervantes, and The Book of Jonah (‘the most deadpan comedy ever written’)—are explicitly evoked.” Similarly, Foster Kamer in the Village Voice found nods to authors ranging from S. E. Hinton and Robert Cormier to Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Campbell. “Essential to The Instructions’ success is the careful moderation Levin took with his influences,” Kamer adds. “They're not distracting.”

Here are seven works of American fiction that inspired Levin during the decade he was writing his novel.
The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski. A young Jewish boy roams the Eastern European countryside during World War II and learns to worship power, then maybe unlearns it—it’s hard to say. The thrills a reader experiences in those moments when the boy masters violence are deeply haunting, tinged with something like regret. Though its protagonist is a child, nothing in this book is cute.

End Zone, Don DeLillo. War as football as football as war. Part 2 of this novel is a particular joy. It’s a hugely visceral thirty-page play-by-play description of a college football game that, even—and maybe especially—to someone like me who knows next-to-nothing about football, never fails to thrill. It strongly influenced the way I approached writing Book 20 of The Instructions.

Operation Shylock: A Confession, Philip Roth. A dark, angry book, maybe Roth’s darkest and angriest, maybe his most underrated, certainly one of his funniest. It engages deeply with ideas about homeland, authenticity, Jewish identity, loyalty, and Zionism without ever getting shmaltzy or academic (not that Roth is one to get shmaltzy or academic). It’s also a super-agile novel-as-memoir metafiction whose technical brilliance can’t be overstated.

My Life As a Man, Philip Roth. A volume my narrator uses to wedge open a door, this is the other big contender for Roth’s darkest and angriest. The feature subject matter here is a hideously cruel, dream-annihilating marriage. Comprising two short stories and a memoir by the fictional Peter Tarnopol, this one’s a super-agile metafiction, too.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace. Two chapters in this book—the Eschaton chapter, and the one featuring the fight between Gately and the Hawaiianly shirted Canadians—had powerful influence on the way I thought about the “9-1-1 Is a Joke” section of The Instructions, as well as the aforementioned Book 20. Beyond that, I just generally tend to think it’s better to be reading this book than it is to be not-reading this book. Each time I read it, I’m more immersed in it than I was the last time; I care more deeply about more characters more often, and I understand more clearly how they’re shaped by one another and the world in which they live. I am not currently reading this book and I miss it.

“CivilWarLand In Bad Decline,” George Saunders. Even more surprising than the number of shivers packed into this story’s ending is how many times you can re-read it and be shaken. This isn’t at all to slight the rest of the story—which is violent, hilarious, grim, and sweet—but the last paragraph is the part that sticks around with the greatest clarity, and it’s everything I want the end of a narrative to be: as unforeseeable as it is inevitable, a justification of every syllable preceding it. I’ve read CivilWarLand no fewer than fifty times, and its last seven words make an appearance in The Instructions, written in permanent marker on the T-shirt of a chubby kid.

“A Poetics For Bullies,” Stanley Elkin. The last few words of this one appear on a different chubby kid’s T-shirt in The Instructions. Narrated by Push, an exceedingly articulate bully, this short story pits Truth against Love, and has you rooting lovingly for Truth. By the end, you’re not just hoping the bully will remain a bully; you need him to do so. If he quits, you’ll be lost.
Related post: LOA editor-in-chief Geoffrey O'Brien writes about works that influenced his writing in “The House of Walworth, American Gothic, and Gilded Age Literature.


  1. Thanks for this start to what is sure to be an eye-opening series. I often see connections and threads between works of art and wonder if the creators mind discussing their influences, whether conscious or subconscious. I also am delighted when one artist publicly lauds another -- we all need to see and hear more positive speech. Finally, it is remarkable to me to see reference after reference to DFW and Infinite Jest; I wonder if this is an author and a work that will stand the test of time in the centuries to come.

  2. Very pleased to see the terrific "Civil War Land in Decline" get a nod from a writer; for over a decade now I thought I was the only person who read Saunders's collection of short stories.


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