'36 Arguments' Poses Questions Of Faith, In Fiction Rebecca Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is part academic farce and part metaphysical romance. The novel may not settle the question of whether God exists, but it does affirm the phenomenon of literary miracles, says Fresh Air reviewer Maureen Corrigan.


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'36 Arguments' Poses Questions Of Faith, In Fiction

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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a novelist and philosopher with a finely developed sense of fun. Her novels, which she said are philosophically motivated often investigate the tensions between the life of the mind and wayward desires of the body.

Book Critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of Goldsteins latest novel called "36 Arguments For The Existence Of God."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: The new year began badly for me with a thick head cold and one of those artfully written novels that start off with a lot of beguiling razzmatazz and turn out to be about nothing. The novel in question, "The Privileges," chronicles 20 years in the life of a golden couple who never lose their luster. Other critics have rightly enthused over the novels evocation of the world of the New York mega-rich.

But I found myself growing crankier with every passing chapter in which very little of substance happened. By frustrating narrative expectations, "The Privileges," certainly makes readers conscious of the cliche plot lines we carry around in our heads. But my poor head was too congested for games. I wanted a dose of diverting plot, interesting characters, and a point, along with my Nyquil.

Thats just when Rebecca Newberger Goldsteins new novel appeared like an answer to a fevered prayer. Ever since her 1983 debut called, "The Mind-Body Problem," Goldstein has marked out a singular space for herself in the world of contemporary fiction. A philosopher by training, she holds a PhD from Princeton, Goldstein writes about what happens when worlds collide, the realms of the ethereal versus the everyday, of erudition versus gut instinct, of ration versus lust. Best of all, Goldstein gets away with this high-hating because shes so funny and she knows how to tell an engrossing story. When you have as much gleeful gravitas as Goldstein, you dont have to find quirky ways to show off.

This latest novel is called, "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" and theyre really listed along with their refutations in the appendix of this book. Our hero here is named Cass Seltzer, and like many of Goldsteins characters, hes a Jewish academic, in this case, a learned psychologist of religion. But Cass has lately become a crossover success because of his surprise bestseller entitled, "The Varieties of Religious Illusion."

Dubbed, the atheist with a soul, Cass has attracted the notice of Oprah, Time Magazine, even NPR - with his compassionate and timely tackling of the existential jackpot question: does God exist? Thanks to the efforts of his canny literary agent, a shark who boasts that he knows how to put the antic back in pedantic and the earning back in learning, Cass is now that rarest of animals: a wealthy public intellectual. His success is tempered, however, by the return of an old girlfriend who, strangely, calls to congratulate him on writing such a profoundly autobiographical book.

Taken aback, Cass realizes that hes indeed still replaying the life-shredding events that took place some 20 years ago, when he was a graduate student. Back then, he was under the charismatic sway of a sage or maybe a madman named Jonas Elijah Klapper, a scholar who composed the entire department of faith, literature, and values at the fictitious Frankfurter University.

As Klapper became swept up in the study of Kabbalah and the secluded life of a nearby Hasidic sect, Cass tried to airlift a young boy out of that community a boy who was clearly a mathematical genius, slated to have his gifts ignored because of the worldly suspicions of religious orthodoxy. Of course, Cass would still be haunted by that tumultuous time and by the larger questions about identity, loyalty and most importantly, why people embrace religious belief that still linger.

"36 Arguments for the Existence of God," ends with a suspenseful set piece in which Cass debates another famous academic on the proposition that God exists. The brilliance of Goldsteins satirical, yet affecting narrative is that even as Cass, in the midst of the debate, finds himself drawn to his cutthroat opponents religious point of view, theres enough secular ammunition left in these ending pages to garner the endorsement of uber-atheist Christopher Hitchens, who blurbed this book.

Part academic farce, part metaphysical romance, all novel of ideas, "36 Arguments for the Existence of God," may not settle the question of whether God exists, but it does affirm the phenomenon of literary miracles.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "36 Arguments for the Existence of God," by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

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Im Terry Gross.

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