In Joshua Cohen’s hyperreal world of kitsch, the Sabbath becomes law, Auschwitz becomes Whateverwitz, and the world’s last Jew is on the run.
From the first pages of his novel, Witz, it’s clear Joshua Cohen wants to challenge our hardwired taste for the prim and proper. He ignores the shrill voice that whispers in many a writer’s ear: “Make it neat. Beware of sprawl. Spit and polish those sentences as you would a fancy loafer…” For many writers, this is the voice of reason, saving them from unchecked ambition; but the downside to self-control is that it can pull us toward the safety and security of the status quo.
Considering this novel’s plot, it’s no surprise the author veers toward excess; the world he depicts is absurd. After a biblical plague, all the Jews—referred to as the “Affiliated”—die, save the first-born sons, whom the government corrals and interns on Ellis Island. Among the living is Benjamin Israelian, born bearded and bespectacled, an adult-sized and readymade savior. Soon after, the survivors meet their demise, leaving Ben as the lone Jew in a world that heralds him as a Messiah. A reluctant celebrity, Ben skips town and travels the country, through its deserts and woods and beyond. So the chase begins: Ben becomes the hunted.
Cohen matches the absurdist plot with freewheeling prose. At times, the writing seems out of control; clauses and phrases try to unhinge from the punctuation that bolts them in place. The words fight to keep hold as the sentences buck and buck:
Him turning the place upsidedown, insideout, and for nothing; Him searching, setting aside, in a fit, a maddening raising of heirloom dust. This basement eternally unfinished, this basement eternalizing the unfinished—its lowliest beetles and spiders and worms, its annelids dumb, search through the abandoned for meaning, night and day; day and night, making their ways through whatever remains. To seek out any prophecy left to rot by the rotted—to mourn a future frustrated in the retrospection of our death.
In the above sentence, Ben sits alone among his dead family’s possessions. Here, emotion peeks through (“in a fit, a maddening raising of heirloom dust”). But no matter our narrator’s attempt to riff toward understanding (“the basement eternally unfinished, this basement eternalizing the unfinished”), ambiguity wins (“to mourn a future frustrated in the retrospection of our death”). In other words, the sentence doesn’t rumble toward consciousness; a riff pushes it apace, but it halts at the aphoristic ending.
Of course, this is Cohen’s intent. Each turn of phrase leads to the right. There’s no way out. But for every sentence like the one above, there are handfuls of the following:
Then, to begin with the work of the day, which is slaughtering, the killing of meat, the knifing of it into product, into cuts as numerously diverse as appetites, and as grossly disarticulated, irreconcilable: these eyes of all around seeing, beeves in crosscuts, sirloins and tenderloins, rear round, roasts of flank and shank, brisket and chuck, butterflychops flitting through the dim, evading the chops of blades swung high to scalp, held as long and disjointedly sharp as the teeth of a starveling God…
The hyperrealist detail borders on the self-amused, and much of Witz is full of it, and purposely so: the excess of language mimics a world that values kitsch. Ben is heralded as a messiah. He is a cultural symbol, an instant celebrity. Judaism becomes the Next Big Thing. Observance of the Sabbath becomes law. Yarmulkes. Poland is renamed Polandland. Auschwitz is Whateverwitz. No wonder Ben is on the run—this is a world, not far from our own, in which the popular trumps all else. Everything is appropriated and then stripped of meaning. Judaism isn’t a faith, but side curls and matzo-ball soup. The sentences, therefore, pick up details until they lose all sense of what’s important.
And so the overwrought prose, the details that accumulate until we lose all sense of what’s important.
Unimaginable evil like the Holocaust may be beyond the grasp of art. Yet many have tried, to the point of exploitation. So it’s no wonder that Cohen, who’s been vocal about his intent, is quick to make life difficult for his readers, avoiding convention and sentimentality at all cost. But if he’s a martyr then he’s also an opportunist—in other words, he always has an alibi. However excessive and indulgent his prose, Cohen stays on message. But when the sole focus is excess, the liveliness of his sentences—the tone shifts, the wordplay, the puns, the riffing—is lost to this uniformity of purpose: to out-kitsch the kitsch. The energy of the prose begins to enervate itself, giving way to a glut of detail. Useless information becomes the king of nothing serious, and perceptiveness gives way to cynicism: “Up and down they kneel and they narrow, they straighten, they genuflect, bow up and down—as if this Group’s nothing but a congregation of marionettes.”
People as puppets. There isn’t much to believe in here—but maybe this is the point. If so, maybe my issue is with Cohen’s worldview. There’s no doubt he’s a serious writer, and a skilled one at that. It takes conviction to push an idea to its breaking point, to run the risk of a novel collapsing under its own heft. But I need more than elastic sentences. I need more than criticism. I need to walk away with faith. For faith is what drives difficult books, the feeling that if we hang in there, if we suffer the bouts of hardship, the experience will ultimately reward us in ways that simpler, more conventional novels can’t. Cohen’s refusal to smother his cynicism prevents his prose from stoking that faith, resting instead on the somewhat cheaper laurels of irreverence.