Witz Paperback – May 11 2010
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[N]ow that so much Jewish literature has been written and rewritten again in English, now that we have so many authors and classics, it is all the more rare and inspiring that Cohen, scandalously overlooked in America, especially by the Jewish literary community, continues to delve deeper and further with each book into an inherited terrain while making of that holy ground these beautifully uncharted territories with their own maps and legends.
About the Author
Joshua Cohen is a faculty member at Apple University, and has taught at MIT (1977-2006) and Stanford (2006-2014). He is the author, co-author, or editor of more than 25 books. His most recent books are Philosophy, Politics, Democracy (2009); The Arc of the Moral Universe (2011); and Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals (2012). Since 1991, Cohen has been editor of Boston Review.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
For Joshua Cohen's own version of a "lipogram," a work with a missing symbol, Benjamin Israelien's void after another, now total, global decimation of the Chosen People erodes him from the inside out. His inauthenticity as a Jewish survivor provokes the animosity of the rest of the world. Ben alone remains to become what turns out more the scapegoat than the Messianic harbinger with tidings of comfort and joy. Cohen stretches his somber saga over eight hundred pages.
The novel's span challenges neat summation. Briefly, his family and his birth-- full grown, bearded, hirsute--takes up the first couple of hundred pages with fine print and extended riffs. Cohen relishes food, babble, trivia. The demise of the Jews quickly gives way to their kitsch revival, "in a language nobody speaks but everybody's studying."
Cohen hurries over whatever sense would be in this catastrophe, oddly. He grants us a few powerful scenes of media coverage of this sudden death. Logic diminishes; a reader must put up with whatever Cohen dishes out to a put-upon Ben and the sketchily drawn cabal that unsuccessfully manages his marketing.
He makes us pay attention to the page. It takes patience to stay afloat amid so many verbal depth charges. Submerged into this book, you gasp for air. The force of Cohen's atmosphere presses down on you.
Ben stops at where he would have gone to school, "yet another inheritance deferred." There, "chalk remains from the happy clap of appreciative erasers smeared into the spirals of shoes out on permanent recess." Cohen can write, certainly. But does he write.
It's no wonder Kafka and his Castle edge into the setting at his re-created Whateverwitz, in an inverted "Messianic victory of the bornagain." Why the rest of humanity would wish to convert never gets answered. (Who supervised their conversions after the demise of the firstborn, with all those but Ben born-Jewish dead, I wondered?) People simply change, in a dream logic that pulls along enigmatic, infantile, behemoth Ben against this current of subversion.
I felt that Cohen insisted on a chiasmus -- an inversion of Jew and non-Jew, persecution and acceptance -- that left him no other choice than this for his story. This pace barely bothers with plot. Cohen's concern's not with character. Instead, Cohen determines to force us to accept his world based on ideas, language, and monologues more than dialogues. Perhaps as with Torah or Talmud, this text documents an anthology of human foibles and restrictions and pleas rather than a seamless literary narrative, despite (or in spite of) its very craft.
The firstborn before they will succumb to another plague wonder: "what is a question? How to answer. Will you be at all. Or will you opt out. Don't you want to be. When you're all grown up to dead. Their seder to be interrupted -- libelous, the matzah weeps blood. The seat at the head of the table is empty and will be forever. You'll get used to it." Passages like this may elicit emotion, but they nestle within adamantine blocks of prose. Chunked chapters may crush the patience of all but the few readers nimble enough to catch the Yiddish, the Hebrew, the Judaica tossed here into a tall, deep scrap pile.
In its messianic themes, breadth of Jewish references, and dense erudition, Witz recalls Arthur A. Cohen's In the Days of Simon Stern (1972). In its headlong final rush into the evocation of the Holocaust by its last survivor, Joseph Cohen, it echoes passages from George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.(1980). This stand-alone coda of thirty pages as one death sentence after a life lived in pain and struggle is titled "Punchlines." Breathed into one long recital -- after eight hundred pages of Ben's tale, which lurched about as its protagonist did in an unstable, wobbly gait -- the novel's last gasp finds its stand-up routine that knocks them dead, a negative correlation, its center of gravity.
In its demands, Witz nears Tolstoy's epics in length and Kafka's fables in tone. Combine these with Ben's character of gargantuan appetites, albeit one who eludes the sympathy of the patient, if baffled, reader. The result may be less successful than some of Cohen's storied predecessors, yet it may surprise you. A few readers may undertake Cohen's rigorous wake. It resurrects linguistic excavations and intellectual fixations as a narrative "Exodust" that burrows into a tome nine years in the making.
Expending the energy to tackle an 827 page book takes a leap of faith to be sure. It also takes a few strong nudges. When those nudges come in a trinity one has to take a deep breath and dive in. The triumvirate, all discovered in a morning, started with an excerpt on Ben (Notable American Women) Marcus' website, rapidly followed by noticing a rapturous blurb by Steve (Arc d'X) Erickson and then an intriguing interview by Blake (Scorch Atlas) Butler ([...]).
Marcus, Erickson and Butler are all heroes. They all wallow in language like words are the salt in the Dead Sea. But then a further google uncovered numerous comparisons with David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Franz Kafka and James Joyce. Ahem.
And indeed, after several exhausting weeks, I can say that Joshua Cohen joins their ranks with enviable chutzpah. The essential story has been described elsewhere here, so no need to go into that. Suffice it to say I am not one of the Affiliated, but trust me, you don't need to be. Cohen essentially paints with words, creating vast canvases that embrace everything from surrealism to science fiction, from heart-wrenching heartbreak to heart-warming hilarity. Despite the sheer weirdness of structure, there is a clear-cut narrative here, albeit with a moment of cunnilingus that would make David Cronenberg blanch. Cohen has created an alternate universe richer than any in contemporary literature. Steve Erickson, in his blurb for the book, states that "the only question is whether Joshua Cohen's novel is the Ark or the Flood." My question back is, is it feasible that it is both?
This book is NOT an easily digestible novel. I wouldn't even call it a novel. This is nothing like Kurt Vonnegut. It is less easy to follow than Thomas Pynchon. This is not like David Foster Wallace. Calling it a prose poem is more accurate, but it's not poetry in the rhyming sense. It's poetry in the sense that many of the sections of text separated by periods (calling them sentences is generous, since many of them seem to be missing a complete thought and/or a subject-verb-object set) are ambiguous and up for interpretation to the extent that I wasn't even confident I was reading a story.
Maybe it's best to call it a long poem that doesn't rhyme and also doesn't have any particular repetitive syllabic or spatial organization.
After the first page, my interpretation was that this guy was good at stringing together intelligent-sounding sentence fragments with commas, dashes, and semi-colons. He may be good at building beautiful ideas over a period of several pages, but the sentence fragments are so disconnected that it was very difficult for me to synthesize any kind of approximation construct to aid in remembering all of the stuff said or implied in the last few sentences. He uses some words I don't often encounter. After reading the first page, I think a reader would have a very difficult time answering the question "What is happening in the novel right now?"
David Foster Wallace is my favorite author. Certainly, he goes on tangents, but generally they last for a paragraph or so, and I can understand them. With this guy, it seems like every sentence fragment is own tangent, and there are so many of them that I wasn't able to find a cohesive narrative or description buried in the whole. Assuming this work is smart, which a lot of people keep saying it is -- to enjoy this book, I think the following is probably true:
1) You better be really intelligent, because you're going to have to remember a ton of disparate information.
2) You better be patient, because the relevance of this information isn't immediately obvious
3) You better have a lot of time on your hands, because this book is upwards of 800 pages.
I really wanted to like this book, but I couldn't get into it. I'm not very good at reading Thomas Pynchon either. Based on my experience with Thomas Pynchon, having a shot of tequila will probably make the book more palatable. "The Instructions" seems to be a related book with more digestible text.