Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has written a highly intellectual, and intelligent, book. One might even be tempted to classify it as the first “new atheist” novel. The protagonist of her book is a slightly snuggly version of author Sam Harris — an unknown academic named Cass Seltzer who pens a runaway atheist bestseller. But this doesn’t make “36 Arguments” a polemic on atheism (which may disappoint some readers.) Not to worry, though. The dialogues are playful, the characters vivid, and the overall feel is one of affectionate satire towards the uptight world of academia.
It has been said that the book paints an unflattering picture of the literary critic Harold Bloom, whose alias Goldstein makes the object of a spirited burlesque. This reviewer is of the opinion that no malevolence was intended. Sure, Jonas Elijah Klapper comes off as a gluttonous genius with a penchant for rambling kabbalistic interpretation of poems like “Dover Beach,” but there’s so much verve and enjoyment in the ideas he (she) toys with that a certain admiration shines through nonetheless. Who would argue that the real Bloom — a self-described “Falstaffian” — presents himself in much the same way as Goldstein’s fictional one?
The appendix of the novel consists of 36 (a recurring number in this mathematics-driven book) philosophical arguments for the existence of God and their subsequent refutation. While the narrative itself is full of atheists — a sexy game theorist, a cameo by literary agent JB and the likeable anthropologist-cum-Rastafarian chauffer Roz Marglois, there is no special attention paid to atheism. It’s just part of life at Frankfurter University.
All this intellectual action climaxes in a debate between Seltzer and his fictional theistic antagonist, a Nobel prize-winning economist named Felix Fidley. Unsmiling Fidley comes off a bit unflatteringly, as one might expect. The scene is a page-turner. Fidley’s arguments for God fall predictably flat.
Goldstein has an uncanny grasp on the dynamics of academic rivalry. She is also a pushover for romantic love with a knack for wonderfully constructed English sentences. Best novelty: she coins her own meme, “to fang,” meaning “to pose a question from which the questioned can’t recover.”