Madcap novel of ideas, careening between the hilarious and the ponderous.
Goldstein (Betraying Spinoza, 2009, etc.), whose fiction and biographies alike reflect her background in philosophy, has certainly chosen a timely topic. Protagonist Cass Seltzer soared from academic obscurity to bestselling renown with The Varieties of Religious Illusion, in which he attempts to refute every basis for belief in God without belittling those who accept them, thus distinguishing himself in the contemporary debate over faith and reason as “the atheist with a soul.” For the prior two decades, Cass had “all but owned the psychology of religion, but only because nobody else wanted it.” His book’s success brings him a write-your-own-ticket offer from Harvard and an even greater reward: the love of the beautiful, formidably intelligent Lucinda Mandelbaum, whose work in the field of game theory he can barely understand. His success also brings him the enmity of his mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, who might be a genius but is definitely a messianic crackpot. “The Klap” kept another protégé from receiving his doctorate for more than 13 years and once proposed that Seltzer switch his dissertation topic to “the hermeneutics of the potato kugel.” Within the novel, intellectual slapstick collides with romantic farce, as the lovesick professor discovers that “romantic infatuation can be a form of religious delusion, too.” It builds to a public debate over God’s existence that isn’t going to make anyone forget Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor and concludes with the titular “36 arguments” that Seltzer’s book refutes, filled with such hair-splitting redundancy that one suspects his was one of those bestsellers bought in great numbers by people who never actually got around to reading it.
Always smart and intermittently very funny, but the shifts in tone, leaps in chronology and changes of focus can induce whiplash.