Readers familiar with Rebecca Goldstein's previous fiction would no doubt find that 36 Arguments for the Existence of God has much in common with the earlier work. It concerns itself with the intellectual nexus formed by science-mathematics-philosophy, is set in the campus world of academics, and supplements its focus on the life of the mind by introducing questions about Jewish identity and Judaism as a side interest. It is the sort of thing most readily identified as a "novel of ideas," although this novel may be the most insistent on foregrounding the "ideas" themselves as its central interest.
In novels such as The Mind-Body Problem (1989), Mazel (1995), and Properties of Light (2000), Goldstein takes as her subject characters working in the "hard" disciplines who struggle to reconcile their commitment to the intellectual rigor of these disciplines with their physical and emotional impulses that tempt them away from that commitment, in some cases toward the suspension of reason and rigor represented by religion and religious tradition. 36 Arguments continues the preoccupation with this subject but does so in the form of a conventional academic satire, a mode the earlier novels, for all their focus on academics and their eccentricities, did not really approach. These novels (as well as the short story collection, Strange Attractors) seemed to manifest an effort to satisfy both the demands of philosophy and of literary form (perhaps analogous to their protagonists' efforts to reconcile head and heart). Properties of Light, for example, finds a provocative way to use science to create a ghost story of sorts, as one of its characters comes back to quantumly "haunt" the woman responsible for his death.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God, however, doesn't really exhibit the same concern for transforming philosophy and science into literary devices. Granted, the "36 arguments" construct is used as a structural element, incorporated literally in the form of a series of propositions and their refutations as the novel's concluding section and metaphorically by providing the novel's chapter titles, but otherwise this novel presents few surprises either formally or thematically, proceeding as a garden-variety academic satire complete with bursting egos, pretentious-sounding projects, and fierce political in-fighting. It provides Goldstein with the opportunity to portray the current phenomenon of "new atheism," but its appeal is largely restricted to the examination of this phenomenon as a "current issue." While some marginal interest might be added by dramatizing this phenomenon through attributing positions to fictionally depicted characters, finally not much about the controversy over new atheism is really illuminated by dressing it up as fiction rather than addressing it more straightforwardly through analysis and explication.
The most serious limitation of 36 Arguments, however, is that as satire it isn't very funny. None of the characters rise above facile caricature--the female characters are all in one way or another too much woman for the diffident protagonist--and emphasizing the decidedly Jewish names of campus buildings (at "Frankfurter University") and a college president named "Shimmy" only goes so far. The most egregious failure is the portrayal of Jonas Elijah Klapper, "Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature, and Values" and embodiment of pomposity, clearly enough modeled on Harold Bloom. Once one "gets" that this character is based on Bloom, the endless reiterations of his girth, his affected speech and mannerisms, and his encyclopedic references to Jewish mysticism become almost unbearable. It's never clear whether Klapper is meant to represent the foolishness of literary study in general, or of a particular kind of anti-scientific literary discourse, or whether he just signifies that it's inappropriate to be Harold Bloom. Whatever the case, we can only conclude that, as Gordon Haber puts it in his review of the novel, Klapper "is supposed to be a comic figure because his interest in Judaism leads to messianic delusions, and because he’s fat" (The Forward).
Because so much space is devoted to Jonas Elijah Klapper, and because presumably something is to be made of the contrast between Klapper's approach to "faith and values" and the approach the protagonist, originally a disciple of Klapper, eventually favors, or between Klapper's take on Judaism and that of "true" Hasidic Jews, or something or other, the insipidness of the novel's portrayal of him subverts any purely literary claims it might have to make on us. The flashbacks to this period in the protagonist's life prove almost completely superfluous and little in his interactions with other characters is of much interest. We are left with a subplot concerning the "Valdener Hasidim," a community of Hasidic Jews for whom both Klapper and the protagonist develop an increasing fondness. Interest focuses in particular on the current Valdener Rebbe and his heir apparent son, a mathematical genius in the making who is ultimately forced to choose between the potential of his genius and his responsibility to the community he is apparently destined to lead.
The protagonist, Cass Seltzer, a Frankfurter psychologist who has written a surprise best seller called The Varieties of Religious Illusion, is himself not a very compelling character. He exists mostly as an opportunity for Goldstein to evoke the milieu he inhabits and to raise the issues of faith and belief with which the novel is principally concerned. He has the consummately "moderate" personality that allows him to empathize with believers even as he is chosen to make the case for nonbelief in a setpiece debate near the novel's conclusion. He is clearly enough regarded as the "winner" of the debate, yet his admiration of the community spirit that maintains the Valdeners in their traditions and of the decision by the son to continue those traditions after his father's death is also palpable. The narrative never deviates from Cass's perspective, and we are inevitably led to appreciate both his intellectual toughness and his soft spot for tradition and solidarity.
The novel's concluding episode, a joyous celebration of a Valdener wedding, veers away from satire and rests ultimate sympathy with the community practices of the Hasidic Jews. This is the sort of thing some readers find "moving" or "transcendent," but I find it muddled and maudlin. It doesn't seem to me to rescue a sense of "mystery" about human life but indicates a willingness to disregard the truth. It doesn't invest Cass Seltzer with additional "humanity" but confirms his ability to equivocate. Cass may not be a believer, but he'd really, really like to be one, the irrationality of belief notwithstanding. The right kind of religious belief--not too intense, but with a lot of dancing-- would be so nice and agreeable.