Tumbling into the Heart of Genius
Shapiro, Dani, Moment
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein Pantheon 2010, $27.95, pp. 416
For years, I've been telling my creative writing graduate students that there's such a thing as "too smart" to be a first-rate writer of fiction. A certain kind of penetrating, analytical intelligence, at home in the world of ideas and abstractions, often comes off as lost and flat-footed when entering the realm of human feelings--love, grief, longing, despair, hope, desire--like a brilliant, nebbishy teenager sitting in a corner at the dance. Fiction writers are sensory creatures, I tell my students. We sniff as we go, alert and watchful, grounded in the here and now, attuned to the subtleties of our characters' emotional lives. We need to be smart, yes. But not too smart--not so smart that we think ourselves right out of the picture.
I found myself thinking about this while reading Rebecca Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. Goldstein is wicked smart. She wrote her first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, as a young professor at Barnard, after earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton. The novel is a penetrating exploration of the ways in which philosophy prepares--or fails to prepare--us for the difficulties inherent in being human. It is, as well, a poignant and provocative coming-of-age story in which the heroine struggles with her Orthodox background. The novel quickly separated Goldstein from the pack of that era's first novelists. She was a thoroughbred--her literary adroitness so suffused with heart and soul that she simply seemed to have arrived fully formed, already at the top of her game. Goldstein continued to teach philosophy while steadily bringing out a series of fine works of fiction and non-fiction set largely in the university world.
The recent Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade few Who Gave Us Modernity, part memoir, part intellectual biography of the philosopher, solidified her reputation as a writer who can move effortlessly between forms, doing both equally well. She playfully titled another work of fiction Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal and Quantum Physics. Along the way, she has collected a trophy case of grants and awards: a Whiting, several National Jewish Book Awards, a Guggenheim, and most notably a MacArthur, otherwise known as the "genius grant."
It is genius itself that is one of Goldstein's central preoccupations. When 36 Arguments for the Existence of God opens, we meet Cass Seltzer, professor of science and religion at the fictional Frankfurter University, a small, primarily Jewish bastion of the liberal arts outside Boston, a school shivering slightly in the imposing shadow cast by Harvard just 12 miles away. (When it comes to names of characters and institutions, Goldstein likes to have fun. Pop quiz: Can you name another small Jewish-leaning liberal arts university near Boston named after a Supreme Court Justice?)
It's four o'clock in the morning, and Cass is standing on the Weeks Bridge overlooking the Charles River in Cambridge, contemplating his future. "His life has become strange to him. He feels as if he's wearing somebody else's coat, grabbed in a hurry from the bed in the spare bedroom after a boozy party. He's walking around in somebody else's bespoke cashmere while that guy's got Cass' hooded parka, and only Cass himself seems to have noticed the switch." The catalyst for this late night reverie is folded neatly in Cass' coat pocket--a letter from Harvard, that Frankfurther nemesis, making him an offer he can't refuse. His new book, The Varieties of Religious Illusions, has turned him into an improbable international superstar, soaring to the top of bestseller lists, and has been translated into 27 languages, including Latvian. He has become an intellectual pin-up--his boyish good looks and ability, according to Time Magazine, "to write of religious illusions from the standpoint of the regretfully disillusioned" has earned him the nickname of "the atheist with a soul. …