What if kabbalah is real, and that therefore the deep structure of the primordial Torah underlies not only the book of Exodus but also American history? What if there are real live angels, who know everything except, as per the Talmud, the ancient language of Aramaic?
That’s the premise of the novel “Unsong,” in which the modern world of science and technology was cracked open in 1968, when the Apollo 8 spacecraft collides with the crystalline sphere separating Earth from Heaven.
Yes, the medieval notion of the earth at the center of the universe was correct. What seemed like the accurate findings of centuries of atheistic science was only the result of an angel trying to remake creation on the basis of mathematics — an effort that this novel tells us began to crumble in the Nixon administration.
This history is explicated in flashback chapters (some ranging as far back as the Tower of Babel). Other chapters expound on kabbalah, including talmudic stories of Rabbi Akiva and original observations. For example: Did you ever notice that Moses, who freed the Israelites, was married to Tzipporah, whose name means bird, and that Lyndon Johnson, who passed the Civil Rights Act, was married to a woman called Lady Bird? A coincidence, you say? Nothing is ever a coincidence is the novel’s recurring refrain.
The book’s central action takes place in the present day, where a once-technological society has been remade with the new technology of Divine names. The many names of God each conveys a unique power — invisibility, teleportation, the summoning of winds. The names, of course, are copyrighted, and their unauthorized use is subject to violent policing by the United Nations Subcommittee On Names of God, or the UNSONG. The plot concerns Aaron Smith-Teller, whose degree in kabbalah is going fallow as he works as a technical drone, reading from a computer-generated list of random syllables to see if any are in fact divine names with power. Any names thus found of course become the property of his corporate employer.
He is a member of the Unitarians, an underground group that believes the Names of God should be the property of all humanity. Members share this forbidden knowledge with each other.
Aaron accidentally discovers a new name of God — one powerful enough to make him think that he can take over the world.
Before long, UNSONG is after him, and the chase is on.
I won’t reveal the ending of the book because it hasn’t been published yet. “Unsong” is web novel, with author Scott Alexander, a psychiatrist and blogger, uploading a chapter or two each week at unsongbook.com. An active community has grown up around the novel, with people contributing annotations, speculations, and fan art.
As with all serialized fiction, there’s the risk that it won’t be completed and readers will never learn how it ends. On the other hand, at least so far the ride is worth it. Where else can you see Isaac Bashevis Singer lead the forces of Marxist Lurianism against the forces of Hell invading the Soviet Union? Or the Lubavitcher rebbe animate the Statue of Liberty into a demon-defeating golem?