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'36 Arguments' Poses Questions Of Faith, In Fiction

The new year began for me badly — with a thick head cold and one of those artfully written novels that start off with a lot of beguiling razmatazz and turn out to be about nothing. The novel in question, The Privileges, chronicles 20 years in the life of a golden couple who never lose their luster. Other critics have rightly enthused over the novel's evocation of the world of the New York mega-rich, but I found myself growing crankier with every passing chapter in which very little of substance happened. By frustrating narrative expectations, The Privileges certainly makes readers conscious of the cliched plot lines we carry around in our heads, but my poor head was too congested for games. I wanted a dose of diverting plot, and interesting characters, and a point, along with my Nyquil.

That's just when Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new novel appeared like an answer to a fevered prayer. Ever since her 1983 debut, The Mind-Body Problem, Goldstein has marked out a singular space for herself in the world of contemporary fiction. A philosopher by training, (she holds a Ph.D. from Princeton), Goldstein writes about what happens when worlds collide: the realms of the ethereal vs. the everyday; of erudition vs. gut instinct; of ration vs. lust. Her novels tackle the Big Questions of Life and unapologetically reference philosophers like Spinoza and William James. Best of all, Goldstein gets away with this high-hatting because she's so funny and she knows how to tell an engrossing story. When you have as much gleeful gravitas as Goldstein, you don't have to find quirky ways to show off.

This latest novel is called 36 Arguments for the Existence of God and the arguments of the title are really listed — along with their refutations — in the Appendix of this book. Our hero here is named Cass Seltzer and, like many of Goldstein's characters, he's a Jewish academic, in this case, a learned psychologist of religion. But, Cass has lately become a crossover success because of his surprise bestseller entitled, The Varieties of Religious Illusion. Dubbed "the atheist with a soul," Cass has attracted the notice of Oprah, Time Magazine, even NPR with his compassionate and timely tackling of the existential jackpot question: "Does God exist?" Thanks to the efforts of his canny literary agent, a shark who boasts that he knows how to put "the 'antic' back in 'pedantic' and the 'earning' back in 'learning,'" Cass is now that rarest of animals: a wealthy public intellectual. His success is tempered, however, by the return of an old girlfriend who, strangely, calls to congratulate him on writing such a profoundly autobiographical book.

Taken aback, Cass realizes that he's indeed still replaying the life-shredding events that took place some 20 years ago, when he was a graduate student. Back then, he was under the charismatic sway of a sage — or maybe a madman — named Jonas Elijah Klapper, a literature professor who composed the entire department of Faith, Literature, and Values at the fictitious Frankfurter University. As Klapper became swept up in the study of Kabbalah and the secluded life of a nearby Hasidic sect, Cass tried to airlift a young boy out of that community — a boy who was clearly a mathematical genius, slated to have his gifts ignored because of the worldly suspicions of religious orthodoxy. Of course, Cass would still be haunted by that tumultuous time and by the larger questions about identity, loyalty and belief that still linger.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God ends with a suspenseful set piece in which Cass debates another famous academic on the proposition that "God exists." The brilliance of Goldstein's satirical, yet affecting narrative is that even as Cass, in the midst of the debate, finds himself drawn to his cutthroat opponent's religious point of view, there's enough secular ammunition left in these pages to garner the endorsement of uber-atheist Christopher Hitchens, who blurbed this book. Part academic farce, part metaphysical romance, all novel of ideas, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God may not settle the question of whether God exists but it does affirm the phenomenon of literary miracles.

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Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.