Witz: A Novel

by Joshua Cohen. Dalkey Archive, 817 pages, $18.95

For my sins, I have been reading Joshua Cohen's "Witz," a two-pound paperback book that has helped with my "persistence training," but which might well have served better as a doorstop, or as the author himself has suggested elsewhere, a "tombstone," a grave marker under which he wants to bury the last Jewish-American novel, and apparently the last Jew. That would be Benjamin, the one born on Christmas Eve 1999, full-blown as a little old man, right on the Shabbos table of Israel and Hanna Israelien. He arrived complete with a beard, and with "glasses ... smudgy with fluid, that and His, nu, you know, too, which is hairy as well, the beard down below and apparently, can it be, already circumcised ...."

A clunky sentence, but a miraculous event, something like the virgin birth perhaps? Well, yes. The newborn, who never gets to be much more than a year old (one of Cohen's many conscious "negations," or exercises in emphasizing what doesn't exist in this novel ) is soon mysteriously transformed into the true messiah, the great Jewish hope for Americans (gentiles included ) who are terrified that they may have lost any connection to God.

On the very night that Benjamin, who becomes Ben, then merely B, is born, an inexplicable plague kills millions worldwide, including all Jews except their first-born males - boys like B, who has only sisters, uncountable and seemingly interchangeable. It gets stranger still. A cabal, constituted, it seems, of powerful members of the American government and a commercial enterprise known as Garden, Inc., will in one way or another "disappear" all the remaining Jews - except Benjamin. After all, there can be only one true messiah if the cabal is to be successful in its attempt to convert the world to Judaism - and to sequester and seize for itself all the assets of those born Jewish, now dead.

Like contemporary Poland

Despite the fact that Judaism can become "popular" in a world without Jews - witness contemporary Poland, where klezmer and Jewish food has become the rage, and where inordinate numbers claim some Jewish ancestry - the job of converting non-Jews is not as easy as it sounds. Ben, the last authentic "member of the tribe" (the words "Jew," "Jewish" and "Judaism" are not used in the book - yet another negation ), is not particularly charismatic - he's fat, wears glasses, has an unpleasant odor, turns water into spoiled wine, and instead of healing the wounded, cripples them further. So why do girls named Kristi and Loreta willingly become Rachel and Leah? And why do farmers voluntarily sell the land on which they used to raise treyf animals? Have Americans, has everyone, become that hungry for "meaning," "connection" and "transcendence"? And can that hunger be so exploited by politicians and entrepreneurs as to make everyone "Affiliated" - the name by which converted Jews are now known?

Given the horrors of modernity that Cohen ticks off one by one - and they are legion - we can almost begin to believe in this kind of desperation even in so fabulist a book as "Witz" (pronounced "vitz," and meaning "joke" in Yiddish ). Although some people have to be threatened with the use of force to "believe" in Ben, he ultimately becomes an international celebrity, even to the point of endorsing products, including the hugely popular 18-packs of "He-Brew."

This all becomes too much for B, who tries to escape. And escape he does, into an overly long, far too confusing episodic novel. For his troubles, including surviving attacks by groups and individuals who have suffered in the wake of the world's near-collapse, B is excommunicated by the powers that be. And while he wanders, even getting as far as Polandland, where a real-life Holocaust took place (and where guided tours of the camps "enkitsch the no longer living" ), a reverse Holocaust is launched: Those who continue to resist Judaism are sent to Whateverwitz (on Ellis Island, another negation or reversal of the history of Jewish immigration to the land of opportunity ) where they are put to death.

The plot in Witz is discernible, but it is excruciatingly hard to dig out, and it could easily have been told in far fewer than 800 pages - and with more wallop than Cohen delivers in this meandering, gratuitously vile and ultimately oppressive novel. Don't get me wrong. I think Cohen is a genius and remarkably erudite. This is the 30-year-old's third novel, and in each of them, as well as in his less ambitious but impressive book of short stories, he makes wide-ranging and illuminating allusions to history, myth, religious tradition, literature and music. But one tires in the face of his convoluted terminology and excessive employment of graphic ugliness. "[W]omen raped into becoming mothers would occasionally maintain themselves, too, on their own offspring, pickled sweet in twindeckered sandwiches, stacked high atop wonder white with the crusts cut, spread thick with lard, lashes of butter, fat dollops of mayonnaise without brand, snacking on their kin drooling saliva to shine their mammae, which were headlights, twelvenippled, barebulbed. Their brilliantly pleasureless clitorides were shaped like the Popes ...." Sadly, this is not an atypical passage.

The anarchic energy Cohen brings to language - the puns (the Gospel of Lukewarm, Nurse Minnie de Presser ), the Yiddishisms, the untranslated Latin and German, the sounds (New Joisey, Soygen General ), the hundreds of made-up words (nearmensch, primalputsched ) - is courageous, but it, too, can leave a reader weary, irritated and impatient.

"Patience, patience, shalt thou pursue to pacify, subdue." I felt reprimanded when I reached these words about one-fifth of the way through the book, but impatience soon returned and a yearning for "real" sentences persisted. There are some gems - complex, but rendered with lucidity and pregnant with meaning: "Offshore, Liberty stands untouched, and untouchable, if already tarnished, and as such modest in her grief: arrayed in mourning robes, this metallic sackcloth, her torch a memory candle snuffed in bronze for safety. As for her book - even burnt, it's still open."

Unfortunately, for someone who can write like that, Cohen seems to be against sentences. Traditional syntax, grammar and punctuation are, with ill effect, too often disregarded, especially when the author strings together as many five pages of lines between periods. Well, didn't Joyce, Beckett and Pynchon commit all the "sins" of which I accuse Cohen? Yes, but no one would call "Ulysses," "Molloy" or "Gravity's Rainbow" anti-art (I'm not so sure about "Finnegans Wake," though ). "Witz" may not be anti-art either, but if the future of fiction depends on this kind of writing, the book may be anti-novel.

Perhaps "Witz" is, as Cohen says, only an attack on kitsch - a word he unfairly and incorrectly uses to describe Jewish-American fiction. When he says this genre features too much nostalgia, too many returns to the Jewish fold, and too many "happy endings" (even when the Holocaust is featured ), I don't really know which writers he's talking about.

No happy ending here

Rest assured. There is no happy ending here. Instead, we have a somewhat disconnected, but not entirely unexpected, 34-page section (without punctuation! ) containing the reflections of yet another "last Jew": the last living Holocaust survivor, stuck in a Manhattan apartment, partly angry, partly resigned, meditating about the streets of a not-too-far-in-the-future New York, while also providing a "witness narrative" of his experiences in Europe, ending with a set of punch lines to 108 Jewish jokes.

Joshua Cohen is brave, he is clearly not seeking a large audience and he writes with a mission to sow disquiet. This is admirable, and it works, up to a point. But in the end we have a pyrotechnically intellectual version of the myths (about religion, politics, identity, power and commerce ) that Cohen says he is trying to debunk, and a bulging bag of the baloney he says he wants to bury. In short - and this is too bad from such rich talent - we have only a "look-at-me" high-wire act, wherein the desire to be clever too often wins out over the desire to be clear.

Gerald Sorin is Distinguished University Professor of American and Jewish Studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz. His most recent book is "Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent." He is currently working on a biography of Howard Fast.