When Rebecca Goldstein won a MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1996, the foundation wrote, “In her (Goldstein’s) fiction her characters confront problems of faith: religious faith and faith in an ability to comprehend the mysteries of the physical world.” The MacArthur Foundation went on to say that “Goldstein’s writings emerge as brilliant arguments for the belief that fiction in our time may be the best vehicle for involving readers in questions of morality and existence.”
While those geniuses at MacArthur couldn’t have anticipated that Google would replace fiction as readers’ preferred vehicle to address questions of morality and existence, their praise for Goldstein and her work was as clairvoyant as it was accurate. Her characters absolutely deal with religious faith, faith in self, faith in love, and faith in no less than humankind.
In her latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, psychology professor Cass Seltzer has just been launched from academic obscurity to fame with a new book, “The Varieties of Religious Illusion.” Seltzer, who teaches at a small liberal-arts college in Boston, is less jarred by fame — being a guest on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” or speaking to a sold-out crowd at the 92nd St Y — than with understanding game theory, which is the academic specialty of his girlfriend and fellow pysch professor at Frankfurter University.
When we meet the protagonist, he is deliberating over a job offer from Harvard and thinking of how to tell his competitive yet sensitive girlfriend, Lucinda Mandelbaum, about the offer. She is away lecturing. Without warning, Seltzer’s past begins to catch up with him as eccentric characters enter the story to escort him down memory lane. Through encounters with a zesty anthropologist ex-girlfriend now on a quest for immortality and middle of the night email exchanges with an old colleague, Seltzer’s major influencers are revealed to the reader; the list involves Seltzer’s mom, a Hassidic rabbi, a zany philosopher, and a prodigious six-year-old.
One of the strongest features of the book is the 50 page appendix in the back, which outlines each of the 36 arguments for the existence of G‑d. These arguments are quite rational and very well thought out. Another asset of the novel is the author’s strong knowledge of philosophy and religion, both of which she breaks down for readers into understandable terms.
The last novel that forced me to think about abstract concepts and forage through a dense appendix, all the while laughing with the characters, was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. While this book can be difficult to get through at times, with its hefty and complicated content, like Infinite Jest it is an immensely rewarding read.