The Promised Land and Its Discontents: The Fiction of Joshua Cohen
Jewish American fiction, only a small presence in the American literary landscape before World War II, quickly became a colossus in the decades after. Besides the prize-winning big three of Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, talents as diverse as Cynthia Ozick, Leonard Michaels, and Gerald Shapiro contributed to a collective body of work that managed to be simultaneously earthy and otherworldly, comical and tragic, brazenly candid and hermetically coded.
That body of work is still growing. Jewish lore and experience inform much of the work of Michael Chabon, Rebecca Goldstein, and Steve Stern, and gifted fiction writers still on the green side of forty—Gary Shteyngart, Myla Goldberg, Nathan Englander, Dara Horn, David Bezmozgis—bring to emergent Jewish culture (the Soviet Jewish emigration, the continuing vitality of the Orthodox community, guitar-slinging Reform rabbis) the same capacity for outrageous humor, for prophetic utterance, and for being outside-yet-inside that made some of the novels of their predecessors American classics.
Joshua Cohen (born 1980) is somewhat younger than Shteyngart and company. His 2015 novel, Book of Numbers, was the first of his books to appear in hardcover and to be brought out by a large publisher (Penguin Random House), but despite his relative youth, his is a lengthening bibliography: three novels, a novella, two collections of short fiction, and some less easily classifiable items. Prior to Book of Numbers, publishers of his work have ranged from small (Dalkey Archive) to very small (Twisted Spoon Press, Fugue State Press) to vanishingly small (The Cupboard, “a quarterly pamphlet of creative prose published in Lincoln, Nebraska”).
Reviewers of Book of Numbers typically pointed out its ambition and its timeliness. The ambition had been discernible in Cohen’s work all along, in the stretching of novelistic form, in the gymnastics of his sentences, and in the demands he made of his readers. The timeliness, though, marks a departure. Book of Numbers reads as the confessions, notes, drafts, and disjecta membra of one Joshua Cohen, a novelist (but with a birth year and a bibliography quite different from the author’s) who has landed the job of ghostwriter for a different Joshua Cohen, this one an Internet billionaire along Zuckerberg-Page-Brin lines. A thrillerlike plot gradually burbles up around a character resembling Julian Assange and revelations akin to those made by Edward Snowden—hence the timeliness. The heart of the novel, though, lies in the encounter between the novelist Joshua Cohen, devoted to ink and paper (“If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off,” the book opens), and the tech-savvy, geek-speaking cyber pioneer with whom he shares a name.
In the Torah, the Book of Numbers tells of what became of the Israelites between Sinai and entering Canaan; its namesake novel gives us a Joshua Cohen who has entered the Promised Land and a Joshua Cohen who is dying in the wilderness. In hundreds of ways, Cohen’s novel makes us ask, what Promised Land is this, what wilderness? (That its climactic scene is at the Frankfurt Book Fair is all too perfect.)
This allusion to Jewish history and the traces of Yiddishkeit that adhere to both Joshua Cohens carry forward in Book of Numbers what had been a defining characteristic in Cohen’s earlier books: his incorporating an extraordinary amount of Jewish learning, history, and culture into his fiction, especially in his two full-length novels, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto (2007) and Witz (2010). And like Book of Numbers, those novels are for a patient, attentive reader.
Cohen’s readers not only need the same working familiarity with Jewishness that a reader of Ulysses needs with Irishness, they also need the same patience in tracking syntax through a labyrinth of subordinate clauses that a reader of Swann’s Way needs. They need to follow the smoky plumes of consciousness the way a reader of To the Lighthouse does, and to recall ephemeral detail from many pages back the way a reader of Ada does. Cohen reads like the last High Modernist, or the first New High Modernist. In the age of the tweet and the video clip, when the novel is warned to be reader-friendly or risk extinction, Cohen’s embrace of difficulty is bound to seem quixotic. Book of Numbers, one could say, is about just how quixotic it is. But anyone who finds the difficulty of Joyce, Proust, Woolf, and Nabokov worth the effort, or who feels the importance of those writers goes beyond their being a recognizable face for a book bag, will find Cohen’s difficulty worth investigating.
The back cover of Cohen’s first book, The Quorum (2005), describes its contents pithily: “10 stories / 6 dreams / 1 rant.” The last item may be an undercount, for all the stories approach the condition of rant. Their speakers address us in tones that veer from apology to accusation, they plead for the world’s blessing between bursts of indignation. Sometimes they hope merely to be understood for once. A young man writes a wild, unfinished letter to Franz Rosenzweig, the long-dead German Jewish mystical theologian; a note at its end tells us the young man leapt to his death, the unfinished letter his baffled father’s only clue to what was going on with his son. A man tries to explain to his psychiatrist why he has compulsively purchased beds from a particular bed salesman. Solomon’s thousand wives analyze their collective relationship with their husband-king.
Sometimes the speaker is an intermediary, trying to explain to an audience presumed hostile the extravagant actions of a third party. An advocate pleads before “a heavenly jury” for the righteousness of Reb Schrieben, a Torah scribe who has taken the unspeakable liberty of adding to the Law (his Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not stick thy nose in the, pardon, tush of God”). A book reviewer asserts that the untitled, authorless volume of six million blank pages he has just received is “the best record of, and commentary on, the Holocaust this reviewer has yet encountered. […] So, what does it mean? Nothing, possibly. And what does it teach? Nothing maybe… But it is not mawkish. It is not patronizing. It’s not insulting.”
In the sixty-page story that concludes The Quorum, its one indisputable rant, a violinist interrupts his performance of a concerto to launch into an impassioned account of the piece’s composer, Schneidermann, a friend of the violinist and a Holocaust survivor, who has disappeared and may be dead. This story, greatly expanded, became Cohen’s first novel, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto. As a debut novel, it would be hard to beat for sheer oddity. For one thing, it is entirely in the form of an improvised soliloquy delivered from the stage by an aging and dyspeptic emigré musician, running without a break for 380 pages. Even more intriguingly, it utterly departs from the expectation that young writers write about the young. Balzac’s Lost Illusions set the template: a young writer, highly educated and adrift in the metropolis after a provincial upbringing, oscillates between ambition and anomie, collects a gaggle of highly similar friends, including a Judas or two, naively commits and then painfully emerges from a mare’s nest of professional and romantic gaffes. It works for both men and women—for extra points, choose a foreign setting—and there is your debut novel. Cohen has instead taken on the voice of the A.K., the alter kocker, defined by Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish as “a crotchety, fussy, ineffectual old man,” in the same vein as but even ruder than the American expression “old fart.”
Laster (the A.K. violinist) belongs to the line of narrators who record, and sometimes defend, the work of more brilliant friends: Watson and Holmes, Zeitblom and Leverkühn in Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the narrator and Roithamer in Thomas Bernhard’s Correction. Laster lacks Watson’s equanimity, but the anguished exasperation of Bernhard’s narrators he has in plenty. His anguish is mainly for his friend Schneidermann, last seen walking out on a matinee of Schindler’s List, having shouted out in “jeremiad-voice, Prophet-mode”: “You want Holocaust? Holocaust I’ve got! I survived! Who needs a matinee movie? Who wants to meet a real survivor? Who wants to pay 10 bucks to see a real survivor?” His exasperation is with the New World, its stupid pleasures, its childish culture, its ignorance. Hence the A.K. note: “I’m worthless and the whole world it’s mislaid its mental apparatus, lost the instructions and the markings and no one knows what’s good and what’s not anymore.” Men of the Old World, of European Jewry and the musical culture of central Europe, Schneidermann and Laster can exist only uneasily in the New.
But what nostalgia can there be, after the Holocaust, for that Old World, its smoke, ash, disgrace, and humiliation? Exiled from a homeland where he was persecuted as an alien, lifelong practitioner of an art threatened with obsolescence, his dearest friend gone and perhaps dead, Laster is driven to conclude
that just as there is no use for music, there is no use for the Jews, for the Jew, for Jewishness, that music and the Jews they are both totally worthless, almost perfectly worthless, equally, and that’s why they’ve been almost totally, perfectly, eradicated…
As Schneidermann had put it, “music it is the Jew of art […] the Jew he is the music of humanity,” both “serving no purpose at all” but both inexplicably “still there.” Laster is still there onstage as dawn breaks, his audience now the police and the press, waiting to see what he will do.
Cohen, young as he is, inhabits his old-man persona as if born to it; much of his work, not just Cadenza, is steeped in the vanishing or vanished, the traditions of classical music performance, the Yiddish language, the multiple cultures of European Jewry. His attitude does not tend to be reverential, though, or even nostalgic. Two short books published in 2007, both collaborations with the artist Michael Hafftka, show his relationship to Judaism to be as intimately vexed as was Joyce’s with Irish Catholicism. Aleph-Bet: An Alphabet for the Perplexed contains two memoirlike stories and an essay on the sophiyot, the five letters of the Hebrew alphabet that take a different form when they occur at the end of a word. After a drily parodic survey of the scholarship on how these exceptions came to be, Cohen brings out the theory that an accidental effect of scribal practice simply hardened, over time, into an obligation that no one dared omit. Thus all religions, he argues, become encrusted with absurdities:
I am fascinated […] by the way in which lapse, or the lack of deliberation, creates future practice, constitutes life. Here, amid the final forms [i.e., the sophiyot], is, to me, the horror of Jewishness, the terror of Judaism, is the worst of all observant and organized religion (and so, too, why I myself cannot be “religious” or observant in any traditional sense)—in the most minor microcosm.
Cohen’s relation to Zionism is no less complicated; his short novel, A Heaven of Others, is a theological fable that may also be a commentary on contemporary Israel. A ten-year-old boy, Jonathan Schwartzstein, wanders in an otherworldly landscape that he gradually understands is the Muslim heaven. Some cosmic missed exit brought Jonathan here, we learn, after a suicide bomber crashed through the window of a shoe store where Jonathan and his father were shopping. Jonathan sets out to find Muhammad, hoping for answers, but finds instead a boy his own age—the bomber, it seems, who as a martyr of his faith has received exactly the promised award, but seems as nonplussed as Jonathan. Near the book’s end, Jonathan—his surname translates as “black stone,” recalling the Ka’aba—finally erupts in anger that the “faithful” will have it that orthodoxy persists in the afterlife:
Listen and I will say what I have said. In this heaven as in any heaven I am no longer a Jew. In this heaven as in any heaven I am no more a Jew than I’m not. Jewful and Jewless. Listen. Then hear. Understand. To be religious in heaven is to be truly fanatic.
Jonathan goes on to denounce “the self-elected elect, the self-chosen chosen, the self-righteously rightful inhabitants of this heaven” who have turned it into a region of unlikeness, arid and terrible, that reproduces the exclusions, barriers, and policing that mar the earth.
Cohen’s earlier books, excellent as they are, do not quite prepare one for Witz. By far the lengthiest and most complex of his books, it may be the one a newcomer to his work would be least inclined to pick up, but it is also the one that most abundantly shows his abilities.
Long though it is (817 pages), its main action is readily summarized. On December 17, 1999, a son, Benjamin, is born to Israel and Hanna Israelien of New Jersey, who already have twelve daughters. A week later, on Christmas Eve, all the Jews in the United States die, except those who are first-born sons. Infant Ben is temporarily under the care of his grandfather in Florida (also a first-born son), until all the surviving first-born sons are gathered into a special institution by government command. When Passover comes in the spring, all of the first-born-son Jews die as well—except Ben. In the wake of this second catastrophe, almost all of the United States converts to Judaism (or adopts it, there being no Jews left to conduct any formal conversions).
Ben, who is maturing at a preternatural pace, is now a precious commodity. He is provided with a model of his family home, complete with women performing the roles of his mother and sisters, and groomed as a kind of royalty-celebrity; he is even engaged to the president’s daughter. The wedding is to be held on the 4th of July in Las Vegas—here, Los Siegeles—but Ben lights out for the territory. He roams the southwest, then makes his way eastward, finding his way to his family’s abandoned house in New Jersey, then reuniting with his ersatz mother and sisters. He has a spectacular, even mystical episode of cunnilingus with his ersatz mother (in the course of which his tongue is ripped out), news of which leaks out via a hotel maid, leading to his disgrace and fall. Now an outlaw, he flees to Poland, which has become “Polandland,” owned and administered by the US as a kind of Old World theme park with a sinister purpose: those who have refused to become Jews are brought here to be put to death.
Ben next mysteriously emerges in “Palestein,” which in the alternate universe of this novel is an Arab monarchy. He has grown horns. He has a visionary experience that ends, it appears, in his death. In the final chapter of this main story line of the book, a museum holds a gala event to celebrate the acquisition of a sacred relic—Ben’s tongue.
The novel has a coda of some thirty pages in which the last living Holocaust survivor muses in unpunctuated, Molly-Bloom fashion over his past and present. He is 108, and the novel ends with the punch lines—only the punch lines—of 108 Jewish jokes. (Witz is Yiddish for “joke.”)
The Jewish resonances, as is evident even in the summary, are innumerable. The disaster in which all Jews but first-born sons die is an inversion of the tenth plague visited upon the Egyptians in Exodus, with Santa Claus recast as the Angel of Death. Las Vegas’ new name honors the Jewish gangster, Bugsy Siegel, whose vision it was to make the city a gambling and entertainment capital. Ben’s oral sex with his ersatz mother, during which he winds up in her uterus and then reemerges, occurs on Tisha B’av (“The Ninth of Av”), the day on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, ever since a day of mourning, and according to some traditions the day on which the Messiah will be born. Ben’s loss of his tongue matches the curse the speaker of Psalm 137 pronounces on himself should he “forget thee, Jerusalem” and sing the Lord’s song for the entertainment of strangers. “Polandland” is an inversion of the Holocaust, in which Gentiles die for being Gentiles. Not to mention red heifers, the Third Temple, the echoes of the liturgy for Yom Kippur, or the way Cohen’s description of the facility for Jewish first-borns is shot through with memories of both Ellis Island and the Nazi concentration camps.
While, on the one hand, Witz presents this kind of manic Jewish fabulism, on the other hand, it has set piece after set piece of beautifully nuanced realism: Israel and Hanna’s wedding, the Florida apartment complex of Benjamin’s grandfather, the Vegas hotel in “Los Siegeles,” the museum gala. Alongside his novel’s extravagant invention, Cohen is also very good at the kind of thing novelists like Trollope and Updike are good at—noticing and recording the way we live now, helping us to see our own world.
Cohen’s prose, though, is not of a well-mannered Updikean limpidity. The characteristic Witz sentence is encyclopedic, maximalist, a quick-change artist doing the police in different voices, a river in flood that wants to caress every inch of every chicken coop, every tractor tire, every stick of driftwood that it is bearing away in its wake. It may take up most of a page. It usually embraces several tonal registers during its course, from the demotic to the epic, sometimes sounding fueled and riffing like Lenny Bruce, sometimes biblically ornate like Cormac McCarthy—if, that is, McCarthy peppered his prose with Yiddish and Hebrew.
Here is the conclusion of a sentence describing the plague-emptied Lower Manhattan that Benjamin encounters as he crosses from New Jersey into New York City via the Holland Tunnel:
[…] this season, menschs let out their bellies; womenfolk smear their makeup onto the faces of streets, pink and streaks of red like rainbows trailed by snails, then pray for an innerly inclement weather, asking the cloudfall to cool their lusts, to purify their souls; their kinder pitch pennies worthless into the sewer green and gold, dogs once theirs now stray dash lame from snow to snow… skyscrapers once new, abandoned to scaffolds; earthworming giants idle, dumpster hulks sanctifying as symbols of an emptiness within; ambition unfinished, thrusts unfulfilled; lorded over by an inutile silence and the holy stillness of cranes.
Along with a sprinkling of Yiddish—the novel invariably uses “mensch” for “man” or “person,” “kinder” for “children”—we get an image of dropping dead as a fashion trend, an image of made-up women collapsing on the street heightened with a simile both beautiful and queasy-making (“like rainbows trailed by snails”), then an image of orphaned children, not long to live themselves, and abandoned dogs in a stunning string of monosyllabic words (“dogs once theirs now stray dash lame from snow to snow”) that almost sounds like a William Carlos Williams poem. Then Cohen piles up inverted absolute phrases that read like Whitman-out-of-Ginsberg (“earthworming giants idle, dumpster hulks sanctifying”) before flipping in a wholly surprising but perfect French adjective and a final image that looks like the last line of a haiku until you realize it completes the picture of arrested construction.
Witz is not only a stylistic tour de force, though. The outlandish events at the center of the plot—the catastrophic dropping dead (in two distinct waves) of every Jew except Benjamin, the abrupt conversion of the whole population of the United States—are both logical if extreme extrapolations of circumstances that have ever-present realities for Judaism for a very long time.
There have, notoriously, been those who wished extinction on the Jews. Besides Hitler and the Nazis, of course, we have the czars and their pogroms, Ferdinand and Isabella, Ahasuerus, Pharaoh. The dying off suggests, perhaps, the realization of a desire certain Gentiles have entertained for millennia, with Santa Claus as the Angel of Death: “Most are expecting a stockinglike sack […]. Tonight it’s a can he carries, a metal battered can as if of paint; it’s a bucket, for the record—filled with the blood of the lamb, cut with that of goats when the Arctic slaughterhouse went short on a stray flock.”
But we could also read Santa—the American idol before whom a few more Jewish parents cave every generation—as the Angel of Assimilation. Is the dying off of every American Jew (save one) in Witz a figure for American Jews who in effect stop being Jews? A year after the plague Christmas, the administrator Die (one third of a triumvirate with Das and Der), presiding over the now empty Ellis Island Great Hall dormitory, celebrates Christmas with a tree, which accidentally catches fire. Cohen turns the fire into a trope for assimilation:
Understand, this is assimilation: the transference of one element to another, one state as to its voided other, fire to smoke, tree to ashing away on the wind that seeds, and sorrows… O if only that smoke, that ash, it all, could be reassembled into the lost, but how, made manifest and whole through some, any, allied alchemical effort… to be made then remade in perpetual recreation, what would that cost, what would that be worth—what’s a resurrected life, especially when you have to buy new possessions, when you have to chase after new desires by which to become possessed all over again?
“Holocaust” refers literally to complete destruction by fire; this fire points simultaneously to the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis and to the cultural amnesia of American Jews as two different kinds of irrecoverable loss.
The monologue of the last living Holocaust survivor that concludes the book likewise links assimilation to fire, suggesting a kind of attenuation of tradition to almost nothing—“assimilationist tendencies from ash into air into academics and stories inventions the deconstructivist dated that’s what we do we redact each and every storied second season bedded down in the ground in the air in the pole of the Himmelhow sky there’s nowhere else to die nohow to sleep and yet why […].”
The dying off could be interpreted, then, as an extrapolation and acceleration of a reality already slowly unfolding. In 1990—Cohen would have been ten years old—a National Jewish Population Survey found that 52 percent of American Jews married outside the faith, setting the stage for a “crisis of continuity.” A crisis of continuity may be what those 108 punch lines at the novel’s end are about. The Joys of Yiddish or The Big Book of Jewish Humor will furnish the novel’s reader with the setup of each punch line (and the reader should take the trouble, because they are hilarious). But just as each punch line depends on its setup, one realizes, each joke depends on the context of Jewishness. So will the jokes mean anything as Jewishness evaporates in the bright American sunshine? Will they just be meaningless sentences some A.K. mumbles to an audience of no one?
The mass adoption of Judaism by American Gentiles in the wake of the great dying off could also be an extrapolation of processes long in motion. Before World War II, there was a wide, savage streak of unapologetic anti-Semitism in American culture, high and low. After World War II, we saw the embracing of Anne Frank, the lionization of Bellow and Roth, the universal popularity (until…) of Woody Allen, the Americanization of the bagel, Jewish US Senators, Fiddler on the Roof, Steven Spielberg…. Is Cohen making the bitter joke that all it takes for Gentiles to embrace all things Jewish is the disappearance of Jews? Of course, this obverse of assimilation is even older than that. An enormous chunk of Western culture is founded on just such an appropriation of Judaism by Gentile Christians, who took Judaism’s sacred texts, renamed them the Old Testament, and claimed their stories, personages, and truths as their own.
The chief irony of Witz is that the Yiddishkeit that disappears from the novel’s imagined world is infused into every detail of the novel itself. Joyce’s famous boast that were Dublin destroyed, it could be rebuilt by consulting Ulysses was not really true even in 1922; nor could Jewish culture be reconstituted solely from Witz. But just as a reader feels the sensory plenitude of Dublin in Ulysses, so a reader of Witz is immersed in Jewish American experience (with the Internet, perhaps, doing the work it took generations of Joyce scholars to do by explaining such terms as dayenu, tikkun olam, and hatikvah). Combine that with the novel’s embrace of the American landscape—Miami, Las Vegas, Hollywood, the Southwest, and of course New Jersey and the Lower East Side—and Witz begins to feel like a one-off American classic. If it finds enough readers, it will be.
Paul Scott Stanfield, educated at Grinnell College and Northwestern University, teaches in the English Department of Nebraska Wesleyan University and is the author of Yeats and Politics in the 1930s (Macmillan, 1988) and various articles. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Barbara Straus, and plays bass and writes songs for local garage rock ensemble Prairie Psycho.