Galen Strawson

  • 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein
    Atlantic, 402 pp, £12.99, March 2010, ISBN 978 1 84887 153 3

Six is a ‘perfect number’ – it’s the sum of its divisors, 3, 2 and 1 – and it’s favoured for that reason by Azarya Sheiner, a six-year-old mathematical genius who is the central attractor, but not the protagonist, of Rebecca Goldstein’s new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Twenty-eight is the next perfect number (divisors 14, 7, 4, 2, 1), and 28 arguments for the existence of God might have been more than enough. But 36 is a perfect number of perfect numbers: a perfect square, and it’s twice 18, a deeply lucky number according to the Kabbalistic ‘gematria’ system of assigning numerical values to Hebrew letters (the letters of chai, the Hebrew for ‘life’, have a joint value of 18). There are in addition 36 tzadikim or righteous ones alive on earth at any time, according to Jewish mystical tradition, the Lamed Vavniks (lamed is the letter ל, numerical value 30, vav is the letter ך, numerical value 6). The world will come to an end, it’s said, if their number ever drops below 36.

If you want to know more, ask Jonas Elijah Klapper né Klepfish, the second main attractor, the second of the four people who have to be brought into syzygy for the sake of the book’s central scene. He’s a ‘Jewish walrus’, born poor on the Lower East Side, who has a preposterous appetite for high culture, and a rather specious way of locating 36 in his own name. He’s the head and sole member of the Department of Faith, Literature and Values at Frankfurter University, 12 miles ‘downriver’ (upriver?) from Harvard: a vatic, monstrous man, super-Bloomian, a Bocca della Verità ‘mashing his chin down towards his chest, so that his jowls fanned out like an Elizabethan ruff’, his facial expressions extravagant, as in a silent movie. Professor Klapper says gorgeous things. He has a weakness for fast food. There is a depth of sadness in his eye. He’s a considerable creation, not the less so for being a type.

The third party is Goldstein’s protagonist, Cass Seltzer. Seltzer isn’t a genius (unlike most of Goldstein’s protagonists) but orbits in an irregular, lemniscate fashion between Azarya and Klapper, who are. He’s a psychologist of religion at Frankfurter, the author of a recent bestseller, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, which contains 36 arguments for the existence of God, reproduced verbatim, along with their rebuttals, as the appendix to Goldstein’s 36 Arguments. Seltzer is a mild presence, his type ‘fundamental niceness’. He’s known among the ‘new atheists’ of our day (Hitchens, Dawkins et al) as ‘the atheist with a soul’; unhappily divorced, he has recently been restored by a new lover, the fierce and mildly prosopagnosic Lucinda Mandelbaum.

Mandelbaum isn’t one of the central four characters and is absent for most of the novel, but she’s a classic Goldstein creation, bursting with brain chic. She’s the author of Mathematical Foundations of Game Theory with Applications to the Behavioural Sciences; she’s famous for discovering a non-Nash equilibrium (‘the Mandelbaum Equilibrium’); she’s beautiful, known as the ‘Goddess of Game Theory’. She thinks, to her cost, that most things in life are a zero-sum game, and she has – as she leans over you – brandy-glass breasts.[*] She has invented a new verb, ‘to fang’. To fang someone in debate – her speciality – ‘is to pose a question from which the questioned can’t recover. You could see the stun, the realisation of helplessness setting in.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] This is Goldstein’s reply to Koestler’s ideal of breasts fitting into champagne glasses (as expressed by Rubashov in Darkness at Noon). The theme emerges in Goldstein’s first novel, The Mind-Body Problem (1983), in which the protagonist, Renee Feuer, who fails the Koestler test, is pleased that her lover rejects it.