Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, is a breezy page-turner that flirts with philosophy, religion, and psychology. Goldstein, a philosopher who won my heart years ago with her first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, has the gift of appealing to readers by embedding arguments in characters so smart and charming that you find yourself reading to find out what happens next, even if the most exciting event on the horizon is filling in a chart about game theory or a fast drive to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue with a fussy philosopher in the back seat. Of course some of the ideas are above my head, but I'm willing to spend hours in the company of her smart characters. The protagonist is Cass Seltzer, the author of a best-selling book on the psychology of religious experience who has become famous overnight as an expert on the "new atheism" in the post-9/11 era. Harvard has made him an offer he can't refuse but he hasn't yet managed to tell his girlfriend, Lucinda, a former Princeton professor who was more or less "gamed" out of her prestigious job.
As a burlesque of the academic life, this is both effective and fascinating. Cass is smart: but he's also clumsy and appealing. Suddenly he has a shot to get out of Frankfurter University, a mostly Jewish university in Mass., where his mentor, a spectacularly brilliant but insanely absent-minded philosopher-psychologist, Klapper, presided with dictatorial powers over a handful of graduate student groupies. The flashbacks to Cass's graduate school days are a mix of hilarious awe and chaos. Klapper's lack of a syllabus and indifference to time results in much confusion. One of the grad students, who seemingly will never finish his dissertation, takes care of all practical details, like unearthing the lone copy of a translated Hebrew text and putting it on reserve at the library. Klapper must be at the center of attention at all time and not held responsible for anything. One of the funniest scenes in the whole book is when Klapper is upstaged by a child prodigy during a visit to an intellectual Jewish rabbi and throws a fit.
Cass's old girlfriend, Roz, shows up while Lucinda is in Germany. This intrepid anthropologist, who has traveled the world and suddenly shows up at Frankfurter U, now runs an immortality foundation and pops hundreds of pills and powders a day. Is she here to seduce Cass or to use him? Time will tell. 200 pages into this novel, there's lots of brilliant talk but little action; but the action is beside the point.
Goldstein writes well--not stunningly--but her characters and their talk are sprightly and interesting. This is a novel of ideas with a "populist" spin. Well, at least I'm one of the people and it interests me.