An Infinite Frolic of His Own: Joshua Cohen’s Witz

By posted at 6:18 am on July 21, 2010 10

coverJoshua Cohen’s mammoth (“Gog, Magog, Goliath”) Witz is the new 800+ page novel to vie for your entire summer reading schedule; to make half your book club drop out; to inspire annotations, wikis, lexicography cults. It will be the ire of the lazy reviewer. Dybbuks of lazy reviewers past (perhaps the ones responsible for the reception of The Recognitions) will ascend from Gehenna, boring into the bodies of our current critical ilk, to make right the horrible aesthetic sin of their mortal life. But will the spirits succeed? Or will our arbiters of questionable taste quote from the first hundred leaves and take a nap?

The ground is ripe for high praise. Cohen has proved adept at handling his image and early reception. He’s young (29, and he already has three novels and three story collections out, mostly through tiny presses that do well for his street cred), attractive, and knows how to draw attention. The barbs thrown at Chabon and Safran Foer in the New York Observer alone were enough to get the ball rolling. The buzz is the rare combination of both existing and deserved.

Witz (Don’t make a fool out of yourself: the “W” is a “V”. It’s Yiddish for joke.) is the tale of the extinction of all Jews save the newborn grown man (with beard and glasses) Benjamin Israelien (ben Israel Israelien). 18 million Jews die on Christmas Eve 1999. America reacts by rabidly embracing Benjamin’s religion (Its name unmentioned, the book conspicuously leaves the word “Jew” as a void, the same one where Witz‘s God is hiding.) even as he continues in his apathy toward it, eventually fleeing from his handlers and crossing the country and back, finding his way into Polandland where lies Whateverwitz, Whywald, Nohausen, where the few remaining gentiles are sent for their refusal to convert. The plot is simple and linear, a steel skeleton supporting Cohen’s otherwise omnidecadent Babel tower.

Cohen recently remarked in The Daily Beast that he found his father’s friend’s assertion that Witz was the Jewish Ulysses to be an insult. “Problem is … Ulysses is already the Jewish Ulysses.” I predict (well, I’ve already seen) a lot of Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow referencing as well, and while they aren’t too Jewish, so there could be a Jewish them, Witz isn’t at all a Jewish them either. It’s not a Jewish anything other than a Jewish Itself. It’s big, it’s difficult, and it’s stylistically shooting off a salvo of fireworks the whole way through, but other than those similarities to our other favorite modernist or postmodern bricks, readers of Witz will find out right away that Cohen is doing his own thing.

Cohen’s sentences cascade on and on, with clause after clause snaking down the page. Then a lone period allows you a rest and the next sentence attacks, a sensory assault. If I had to compare Witz to anything it would be to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. I’ll explain. A few sentences in each chapter move the plot forward. A change occurs in Cohen’s world (a few more Jews die, a few more “Goyim” convert, Ben is in favor, Ben is out) or Benjamin moves to a new location. Sometimes this change even occurs off  the page. Then the rest of the chapter is dedicated to the landscape that these small advances in plot create. Roll in the canvasses. There are cityscapes (New York; Miami). There is reservation land and the Mormon stronghold of Utah (the Mormons are notoriously hard to convert). The bulk of the final sixth of the novel takes place in (and here the Bosch is obvious) the hellscape of the aforementioned Polandland: “…A ram ensnared in a thicket, look, and missing its horns; sheep sheared naked, then garbed in the Skin of the Unicorn, see; locusts, my God they’re Locusts, Samuel … storks on parade; geese born of barnacles, grown from a remained grove of trees, hemiformed, varibirthed, the progeny of Ziz or from zat; deer sniffling the most streaks of snails; gelatinous worms splitting earth; ostricheggs boiling on the back of the salamander, slithered from flame; an ass without rider talking its own tour to itself…” it goes on.

If you think you would enjoy pages of that, Witz is it. I’ll admit that there are not a few times where the reader may strain to comprehend what is happening. The last 30 pages in particular go from Jewish Ulysses to Jewish Finnegans Wake. Not that it’s just this mass of difficult-to- relate descriptions, but at times the amount of detail can be so overwhelming as to make the reader feel like she is wading in nothing but a swamp of combinationwords and faux Proper Nouns.

Here I also note that this novel is beyond bleak. Forget Pynchon’s ultimately optimistic humanism (yes, I would say it overwhelms even his paranoia), or David Foster Wallace’s you-could-call-it-religious outlook, or Alexander Theroux’s you-should-call-it-religious outlook. I could still enjoy the novel, but it was difficult for me to see through Cohen’s beautiful brown eyes at times. Cohen doesn’t imagine a way out of his nightmare world, only eternal return. Post-catastrophe most people remain born into “professions and marriages already vetted by their Parents, your Parents’ Friends, our Stockbrokers, and God, becoming Fathers and Mothers they’ll never kill because that would mean above all their own destruction.”

I’m talking a lot about style and saying little about content. I think it will be a while before we get some good analysis. Who will be the first to read this thing three, five, eleven times? Probably not this reader of modest pace. To the first person who reads Witz and even looks up every word they don’t know, let alone makes notes toward a Unified Theory, I wish you luck. Let us pray Witz secures Cohen his due in his own time.

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10 Responses to “An Infinite Frolic of His Own: Joshua Cohen’s Witz”

  1. Felix Holt
    at 11:43 am on July 21, 2010

    Aha! one other who has not read the Wake, another victim felled by that insidious apostrophe. It’s Finnegans Wake, Jonathan, not Finnegan’s Wake. And despite Cohen’s own proclamation to the same effect, the last bit isn’t so Finnegans Wakey after all, I thought.

  2. Felix Holt
    at 11:53 am on July 21, 2010

    Well now you’ve gone and fixed it.

  3. C. Max Magee
    at 11:54 am on July 21, 2010

    Good catch Felix. We’ve fixed. And the error lies as much with the editor (me) as it does with Jonathan. Thanks for reading!

  4. David Backer
    at 11:57 am on July 21, 2010

    I’m about 100 pages in and I’m liking it. Looking forward to more discussion about it.

  5. Neil Griffin
    at 1:14 pm on July 21, 2010

    It sounds exhausting. And I have other long books on the ol’ shelf. Blast! Hopefully I can get to it before too long.

  6. Jonathan P
    at 7:04 pm on July 21, 2010

    Alas, I was slayed by the Wake before completion, I freely admit. Not that that excuses my mistake. While I agree that the “punchlines” aren’t nearly so taxing as Finnegans Wake (Cohen slipped into perfect lucidity on more than a few occasions to help situate the reader through the more difficult to penetrate parts, Cohen isn’t quite so dense with the multilingual puns, etc. etc.) but I stand by the Wake being as solid a reference point as one can get when reviewing a novel as original as Witz.

  7. Tom B.
    at 9:12 pm on July 21, 2010

    And The New Yorker didn’t even put Cohen in its list of top 20 writers under 40, which kinda invalidates that list.

  8. Christian
    at 6:28 pm on July 22, 2010

    Those are some incredibly ambitious comparisons, which leaves me suspicious of the reviewer’s procedures since the quotations from text of Witz itself aren’t impressive.

  9. Regarding Joshua Cohen’s Novel ‘Witz’ « david backer's digital in-itself
    at 3:23 am on July 29, 2010

    […] the accusation that this book is a Jewish Gravity’s Rainbow has been rejected, it feels to me like that’s what’s happening. I like that idea. I like these kinds of […]

  10. Reviews of Witz | Joshua Cohen
    at 11:42 am on February 20, 2015

    […] Yorker, The Forward, Review Fix, The Believer, Jewish Book World, PopMatters, The Stranger, The Millions, OutsideLeft, Times Literary Supplement, Haaretz, io9, Village Voice, Open Letters […]

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