As a MacArthur genius-grant recipient, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has described herself as setting out to write “philosophically motivated novels.” Her brilliant sixth novel, 36 Arguments For The Existence Of God, intelligently approaches one of life’s big questions from the perspective of a psychology professor looking to all the world like he has the answers, yet comically unable to extricate himself from a position of authority.
Cass Seltzer has become a literary sensation for his book The Varieties Of Religious Illusion, celebrated particularly for an appendix in which he lists and debunks the titular 36 arguments. As the man Time dubbed “an atheist with a soul” prepares for a debate titled “Resolved: God exists,” Cass plumbs his discomfort with becoming the spokesman for a movement he isn’t sure he belongs to. He grew up a non-practicing Jew, but his ambivalence about religion stems from his studies under eccentric professor Jonas Klapper, whose own hallowed theory about God and the universe has never been published, and whose sudden religiosity once caused a rift between them. Concordant with the uneasy realization that he has perhaps outstripped his former mentor, Cass contends with figures from his past who have resurfaced to share in his accomplishments, but Klapper isn’t among them.
36 Arguments pairs its philosophical inquiry with a more down-to-earth subplot of academic satire—among the rewards Seltzer’s book has reaped are a job offer from Harvard and an ambitious girlfriend who cozies up to him as he hits the bestseller list—but Goldstein wades deep into Jewish theology and mysticism in the novel’s goopy center, as Cass reflects on his time observing a Hasidic community with Klapper, encountering a mathematical prodigy torn between a full ride to MIT and the mantle of the community’s spiritual leader. Winding discussions of the religious significance of kosher food and the potency of prime numbers bewilder both Cass and readers at large, but once Goldstein returns to Cass’ vein of doubt, her looping sentences depicting his anxiety are frequently splendid.
The culminating debate integrates the novel’s Straight Man and Sophie’s World tendencies perfectly as Cass and his opponent acquit themselves well without either side gaining ground or detouring into a diatribe. Between that tour de force and the appendix, purporting to replicate Cass’ list of the 36 arguments with his rebuttals, Goldstein expertly balances the demands of her fictional world with an engrossing moral argument.