This reminded me of a post-Holocaust Kafka, combined with Joycean wordplay, Pynchonesque ideas, and Beckettian melancholy. The words derived from "Jew" never appear except in the subtitle. Their absence haunts this ambitious novel.
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.