(Dalkey Archive, 2010)
On my Facebook profile, I list my religious views as Eschatological. I like that whiff of brimstone and sulfur in the spring breeze, the distant clop of the four horsemen mixed into the bustle of the day. The End Times seem as sound a retirement plan as my IRA; the terms are actually easier to understand. I am so down with the idea of the endless winter that I am comforted by black metal's putrid roar. It's all a nice thing to think about, but the real deal is: I don't believe in any of it. A eventual destruction of everything is as foolish as an explainable beginning and the ritual cling to the powers that take us from point alpha to point omega is to me, one out of desperation.
2010's might one day be remembered as the Summer of Apocalypse Stories, and if it does, Joshua Cohen's Witz will weigh heavily atop the mountain of ashes. Its heft (800+ pages) and serpentine tangle of verbiage brings on easy comparisons with Joyce and Pynchon and Wallace. Its storyline - all the Jews in the world besides the first born sons die on Christmas Eve 1999, the rest are corralled into a camp on Ellis island to die except for one that was born a full grown man, who goes on the run as the Gentile world slowly distorts his religion as they take it on - and its often mind-crunching pileups of words will bring to mind the wraths of the Torah or the Old Testament, whichever your poison. Check out this bit about cancer:
Because his mother had had cancers and his mother's mother had had cancers, his mother's father, too, then their own parents as well, and then their parent's parents had all had their own cancers and yadda and blah unto the most rarefied generations; everyone he's been related to all the way back probably forever since even Adam, he's thinking - who's death at one thousand years old isn't accounted for in the detail that would seem to befit the first death, naturally caused - had had cancers, and then died of them weakened and feeble at whatever unripe young age. (p. 48)
To my mind, the novel's spiritual ancestors are William Burroughs' (anti-)morality satires like The Western Lands and The Place of Dead Roads and the seizure prose in Beckett's novels. Cohen similarly bleeds the magic out of the miracles and vivisects the contemporary neutering of the mystical by letting its details pour out on the ground like a roadkill's guts.
Sound fun? It kind of isn't, but in a perverse way, it kind of is. The word witz is Yiddish for joke and though Cohen tells it in a willfully difficult way, it's a good joke. His professed goal to create the end to the novel of Jewish kitsch and in a sense he does that. Everything is upended, like the birth of the protagonist Ben Israelien* as a fully grown child-man. The details about the house and the struggle his father must go through to buy the bread for the Shabbos are microscopically detailed while ol' Ben, in a brief passage, just pops out. I missed it at first in the blur of words, only to find myself a page later asking where he come from. In that sense, Witz is a surrealist masterpiece, flipping the lens around to amplify the details, leaving the magic to blend into the woodwork.
Heathens like myself will likely find themselves a little lost in the endless religious minutia. I spent a lot of time scurrying to the laptop like a decoder ring just to see what I'm missing. I found little bits like this:
The name "Tanakh" is a Hebrew acronym formed from the initial Hebrew letters of the Masoretic Text's three traditional subdivisions: The Torah ("Teaching", also known as the Five Books of Moses), Nevi'im ("Prophets") and Ketuvim ("Writings") - hence TaNaKh.
As the days went on, I jotted down more ancillary information for this review than I did passages from the book, and maybe that was in the book's design.Witz , after all, is a book about nullification, about the spoiling of not only sacred texts but sanctimonious texts about sacred texts. The narrative threads are so unraveled and frayed that I admit, had it not been for the plot summary on the back cover, I'm not sure I would've been able to fully suss out the story. Reading Witz is no walk in the park; it is instead a frenzied pick through the remains of a burnt house looking hoping to find something you'd forgotten you needed.
Witz is chocked with brilliance - the elaborate underground system used by the servants in gated communities, Poland's transformation into Polandland, the delirious stream of consciousness passages at the end constructed form dead-headed jokes- but in a way it also choked by it. It is an inventory of an abyss, an unflinching destructor, a merciless satire, a bomb every lost culture drops eventually on itself. The word witz also means son, and lines of inheritance are a little like that bomb's lit fuses. It's a book that, by design, will likely make the reader feel a little stupid, whether for not getting the message or for riding along as the wisdom to which we cling is shred to pieces. The jokes on us, because we likely are stupid, and the end of the world is what we get for living in it and for it.
Photo by Yelena Akhtiorskaya
*If only Cohen was as willing to annihilate the pesky tendency in modern mega-novels of having characters with meta-names. Or maybe that's what he meant.