A Novel of Unbelief
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Pantheon, 416 pp., $27.95
But of course, that is not how most people find faith in the first place. Goldstein acknowledges as much in her last counter-proof, “The Argument from the Abundance of Arguments”: “Religions …do not justify themselves with a single logical argument, but minister to all of these spiritual needs and provide a space in our lives where the largest questions with which we grapple all come together...” The challenge Goldstein sets for herself in her latest novel is whether a writer capable of so fully inhabiting the mind of the atheist is also capable of mapping that faithful “space” in a sympathetic and convincing way. Goldstein is also known as a philosopher—her last book was a biography of Spinoza—but this is fundamentally a novelistic challenge, a matter not of analyzing a consciousness but of creating one.
In 36 Arguments, however, Goldstein seldom strives for that kind of deep characterization—the kind that allowed, say, George Eliot, a famous agnostic, to paint her loving scenes of clerical life. Despite its title, this is not so much a novel of ideas as a novel about intellectuals—which is to say, a comic novel. It opens with Seltzer, a professor at second-tier Frankfurter University, having a late-night epiphany on a footbridge across the Charles River. Yet the trigger for this oceanic experience—“the night is so cold that everything seems to have been stripped of superfluous existence, reduced to the purity of abstraction”—is that he has just been offered a job at Harvard, which for the academic careerists who populate the novel is the equivalent of canonization.
Meanwhile, for Seltzer’s girlfriend Lucinda Mandelbaum—a brilliant game theorist, whose mathematical modeling of the human mind leaves the psychology of religion looking a little squishy—life on the faculty at Frankfurter is a constant humiliation. Even as Cass’s star is rising, Lucinda’s is falling. Her abrasive, arrogant manner got her fired from her job at Princeton, and she takes out her disappointment by ostentatiously attacking people at conferences and lectures—a tactic she calls “fanging.” The match between gentle Cass and sharp Lucinda is an unlikely one, but that only makes him more pathetically grateful. Like his sudden fame and his Harvard job, the love of Lucinda strikes Cass as an inexplicable reward.
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