This cultural satire, or theological parable, or existential lament, invents an exhaustive excursion through the obsessions generated by the death of all but one of the Affiliated. The words derived from “Jew” never appear. Their absence haunts this ambitious novel.
Their erasure may recall Georges Perec’s fiction without the most common letter, “e”, translated as A Void; Perec was orphaned during the Holocaust in France. 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 the rest of the world.
In a manner less than clearly explained by Cohen, nearly everybody else chooses to become “Affiliated”. They take on the characteristics of the dead. For in a sudden, inexplicable event, the Jewish people (somewhat inflated in numbers to the formerly lucky “18” number of millions) perish on Christmas Eve, 1999. A few remain, the firstborn, but only until the following Passover. Then they, too, perish. 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 800 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.
This set-up does allow for send-ups of motivational speakers, a surreal array of ministering Marys who never get the full attention I anticipated, and a suggestive interlude among the Hopi who await their own universal calendar-flip. Cohen likes lots of words. “Lunkfast, linner, and dunch” step forward. I favored a night “lunesilvered,” “groves nymphabandoned,” “thanatopsical tourists,” and holiday giftwrap in “Fluseason Green”.
He makes us pay attention to the page. Via Joycean delight or Pynchonesque wit, we do gain enjoyment, however parsed out. The reader feels grateful for small rewards. 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.
Cohen tends, as in a Cormac McCarthy-like passage about apocalyptic chaos, or one about Cities of Refuge as living hecatombs in the desert, to rush past potentially promising situations. The novel pulls Ben across the desert, with “the sadness inspired by trash that will outlive you, that must.” At Los Seigeles (Vegas), he enters a hotel, its interiors “brushed like the hair of virgins, marble veined like the legs of old, and glass as fragile as their bones.” Death outlives lust in this sober if earthy telling.
The Hopi appear to offer Ben a chance to compare his dystopic revelations with their end-time predictions, but Cohen shoves Ben past this opportunity. He compulsively returns to pun-filled, bitterly comic, and harshly grating recitals of Jewish urban angst. It’s back to Joysey, and New York City, “the land of the locusteaters, drinking the blood of their neighbors for overpriced brunch.”
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.
He spirits off Ben, sort of, to Palestein along with a red heifer, in a section too casually told, and also, sort of, to Polandland. There arises Whateverwitz, the camp where the few left non-newly Affiliated meet their doom. “In order to Polish them off,” the few resisters are “punctually leisured to death.” These passages evoke Kafka, and call on him from the graveyard. They can captivate or chill the reader, but the narrator hastens us as if an impatient tour guide past their detailed, but distanced, intrigues before we can let their emotions sink in.
It’s no wonder Kafka and his Castle edge into the setting at this 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. God hovers off stage, as a truly alienated Doktor Froid tells Ben. “We’re the first people, also the last; the two qualities negate each other,” which leaves the now-unearthly, earth-entrenched Affiliated “fascinated by the end of it all.” As for their purported Creator, this One “doesn’t live where he works, doesn’t bring the office home with him, no mixing business with pleasure.” Transcendence refuses to descend for Ben’s Messianic disguise.
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.
Cohen seems to want to spite us as he does his protagonist and his caricatured antagonists — with whom the author often barely bothers to account for their sinister actions beyond a perfunctory directorial nod. This attitude distanced me from Ben. I could identify about as much with Ben as with Pantagruel and Gargantua.
A Rabelaisian bout of cunnilingus with a stand-in for his dead mother (it’s a long story, take my word for it, and the only extended sexual encounter in a book that sorely ached for the saving grace of the erotic) leaves Ben with the loss of his tongue. With such material dished out in such heaps, the difficulty of empathizing with Ben or his handlers or walk-ons flitting about wearied me.
Hours stretch to days, for a reader facing prose that nears a Hebraic Finnegans Wake. Cohen’s omniscient narrator reflects how “we live because we stay inside—that only with roof and walls are our lives saved; on the lawn and behind its fence, the car parked, the gutters blooming, there we erect our truest Temple.” A bookish insularity permeates these pages; the world outside, so distorted, warps into a grim spectacle.
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.
Cohen may despair over his own affiliation. Ben stands at the waves of the Pacific: “... at least, that’s what we’re constantly telling ourselves: you want out, you got out; forget, forsake, change your name and your address, your nose and your friends and those pants, see what I care, go and intermarry the winds…” Cohen’s creation’s shrouded by Ben’s conception as doomed by “life passedover, the unlivable liveddown, the divine decree of unlovable fame as proclaimed by prevailing silence.”
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 30 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 “Punchlines”, jokes don’t get a rise out of you, but settle into an ironically respectful Jewish tone. “... Corfu’s deportation that goaded load took a month the Hungarian moon over Reich and raum and when the Egyptians finally arrived at Auschwitz everybody was already Tod dead to the Zugang the chaingang the gained slain world the love of my Birkenau Mutter whom last I saw would’ve whispered in my father’s ear slicedoff severed and served to a dog or a God what a waste of a perfectly good train she was funny…” Here, the tale casts its dark magic, however attenuated and horrible to behold.
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.