By Rebecca Goldstein
Cass Seltzer stands on a narrow bridge. Gazing out at the river that has frozen into sublime ice sculptures, he experiences a moment of transcendence.
Such moments are an occupational hazard for Cass as, much to his surprise, he has become celebrated as an atheist "with a soul", launched into the spotlight after the runaway success of his book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion. Key to his success has been the appendix, an atheists' crib-sheet that runs through 36 possible arguments that seek to prove the existence of God, disproving them one by one.
Rebecca Goldstein's novel has the same appendix, which ranges from "The Argument for Answered Prayers" to "The Intolerability of Insignificance," and "Argument for the Survival of the Jews." Her novel also consists of 36 chapters, each of which is presented as an "Argument" that stands in opposition to the rational arguments of the appendix, setting up a talmudic dialectic for the reader, so that we are caught up in Cass's struggle between faith and doubt. The number 36 is deliberately chosen, reputed as it is to be the number of hidden righteous individuals through whom the world is sustained.
Cass's mother is a renegade from an imagined chasidic sect, the Valdeners, who can trace their lineage back to the Baal Shem Tov. In a return visit to the community, in isolated New Valden, Cass and his effervescent girlfriend, Roz, discover an extraordinary personality: the Rebbe's son, Azarya. Azarya is a six-year-old maths prodigy who sees numbers in Kabbalistic terms. His name means both "God's helper", and "with God's help". Azarya's ultimate dilemma, whether to leave the community and contribute to the future of mathematics or to become the new Rebbe, forms the beating heart of the book and the background to Cass's struggle with faith and doubt.
Goldstein's own life mirrors this tension. Brought up in a strict, Orthodox home in New York, she is both novelist and philosopher, recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award, a Guggenheim fellow, and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She alternates between award-winning novels and non-fiction, the most recent of which is on Spinoza, (whose spirit animates this novel). Since penning her first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, 20 years ago, she has revelled in the potential of fiction to illuminate pressing philosophical questions.
The new book's narrative - filled with laugh-out-loud moments - weaves deftly between Cass's present and his past as a student under the formidable Jonas Klapper, Extreme Professor of Faith, Literature and Values.
This satirical portrait of Harold Bloom irresistibly recalls Saul Bellow's portrayal of Allan Bloom in Ravelstein. Klapper is an extraordinary creation, an egotist of monstrous proportions, who becomes fascinated with the Valdeners for his own reasons, and asks Cass to explore the mystical significance of kugel - both potato and lokshen --- for his doctoral thesis.
Goldstein's ability to create strikingly vivid female characters is a particular strength. Cass has always had a problem with women. He deifies whichever lover he happens to be with - at a high personal cost. A French feminist poet, Pascale, savagely dumped him. She was replaced by Lucinda, the "goddess of game theory", an equally fierce and competitive intellectual. Now Roz, his college girlfriend, has returned from field research in the rain forest, committed to the "Immortality Project", seeking to defeat death.
The fates of Azarya and the Valdeners, Klepper, Roz and Cass, are artfully interwoven as Cass heads for a showdown at Harvard to debate God's existence with a Nobel Prize-winning economist.
Playfully exposing the self-deceptions of her characters, and the irrational basis of their most cherished rationalisations, Goldstein's glorious novel celebrates the perils, pitfalls and profound joys of a life of the mind and spirit.