Joshua Cohen is one of those hyper-literate, glasses-wearing polyglot penmen, a writer who reads everything and whose work harks back to writers of a certain curiosity like Barthes and Gaddis, yes, and David Foster Wallace of course; and, at times, earlier in his career, Cohen flaunted a wandering, wondering intellectual gait redolent in its momentum of that most elusive of postmodernists, James McElroy, New Yorker know-it-all who bombards loyal readers with his fusillade of voices, sentences twisted serpentine. Cohen understands the ancient art of mockery, with a sense of humor rooted in the works of Aeschylus, who was, fellow novelist Tom McCarthy said, the first writer of encyclopedic fiction. Cohen is well-read and prone to ornate orations, elucidating on whatever happens to pop into his big brain, which makes him an always-intriguing interviewer and interviewee. He ponders the possibility/impossibility of the authentic experience, the liminal space and loopholes of modernity in terms realistic and ridiculous and, ultimately, like any good writer, ontological, and he, like Pynchon and DeLillo et al., is interested in the systems whirring around us, and how we fit into these systems, if we fit at all, and if we are even still people after being chewed up and spat out of the crypto-capitalist apparatus. He once said that DeLillo wrote about our “unrelenting present,” and something similar could be said about Cohen himself.
Cohen was raised in Atlantic City and studied composition at the Manhattan School of Music. (He shares this penchant for music with the acerbic and perverse Anthony Burgess, who wanted to be recognized for his composing more than his writing. They also share a concern with rhythm and tone in their prose.) He has a great ear for narration and dialogue, mingling jargon, slang, and rarefied references, classical literary traditions, modernist musings, and tendencies tinctured with the philosophical and the solipsistic; he has the fidgety restlessness of that smart kid in the class who's always saying stuff that goes over your head. (This, at least based on YouTube comments, seems to make Cohen unbearable to some people.) He wants to tell us so much about so many things. His voice is reverberatingly American, that Jersey/Brooklyn bricolage of sounds, badinage, aphorisms and neopolisms, allusive airs eddying, and data and numbers scattered amid the torrents of talk. In The Book of Numbers, the story of a fictitious writer named Joshua Cohen writing about a nefarious technologist who is also named Joshua Cohen, there’s a conscious and clear effort to stress the right syllables like a composer does notes. It's difficult to not appreciate the commitment here, even if the book can be exhausting (it is very long). One may find one's self wondering why any of this is necessary, but that's the point, perhaps—nothing is necessary, and yet it all matters. He once said of Book of Numbers that it isn't “about” two people, but “with” two people, adding, “It's not about anything.” Or the most fascinating and least-tangible of Cohen's projects to date, his online, in-real-time writing/typing of a novel called Pckwck (as in the Pickwick of Dickens), which was live-streamed, with viewers able to leave comments, and Cohen smoking, sipping coffee, rubbing his temples, fingers pecking on keys as he mouthed the words unspooling and manifesting on the white screen. Watching the deluge of words appear, witnessing the process of internal editing and creativity, the obsessive glint in Cohen's eyes, made me think of Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which a young, lanky Jeff Goldblum, playing a poet, is asked why he takes so long to write, and he quips back that he picks his words one at a time.
The Netanyahus, Cohen's newest and most conventional novel (not that it’s all that conventional, really, just more so than the 800-page florilegium sprawl of Witz, or the syntactical calculations of Book of Numbers, or the human-hair-as-currency weirdness of his early stories), is a campus novel, as well as a send-up of the campus novel, wryly irreverent like Kingsley Amis, narrated by an old man, yet written by a young man (Cohen is 41), akin to what Anthony Burgess did in his trenchant opus Earthly Powers. It's Rothian in its rampant Jewishness, Bellow-like in its braggadaccio diatribes. Again, Cohen, who writes about other writers often and passionately (his essay on Ann Quin is an essential piece of criticism), recalls so many other luminaries of literature before him, but there aren't many current novelists of similar stature, at least not those who get invited to give talks at The Strand. Cohen is a writer torn from time and yet clever in that modern way.
After novels of more obvious ambition, this one seems, at least by comparison to earlier, odder works, ironic in its ostensible simplicity, and yet the sensibilities are earnest, empathetic. The Netanyahus concerns Ruben Blum, the token Jewish professor at Corbin University upstate, though no one wants to call it upstate (I know, from my time in graduate school at Syracuse, that some upstaters call upstate New York “TONY,” The Other New York; they even have a biannual event for which the public arts institutions collaborate to celebrate TONY artists), a man who, due to his being Jewish, is treated as the authority figure on all things Jewish. The novel is narrated with retrospective erudition from Blum, passages of introspection about his in-laws, his parents, his family (his wife is “bored,” his daughter “angry”), interspersed with letters about and lectures by Benzion Netanyahu, the Israeli professor that Corbin College is hiring to fulfill one of those pesky diversity quotas, and whom Professor Blum is supposed to vet and welcome, from one Jew to another. Questions of identity—Jewish, American, male—arise, are pondered, and never answered to the satisfaction of anyone, but c'est la vie. Some things are better left unknown. As Harold Bloom said of Roth, there is no trace of Jewish anti-Semitism in Cohen’s pained laughter. The Jews, “which—who—weigh heavy on my heart,” Ruben says. It might be seen by some as a negative or harsh view, but Cohen has called his works, somewhat jestingly perhaps, realist. Cohen looks at current events not as profoundly ugly, but with something closer to scathing objectivity, as systems of people comprising larger experiences, specificity, and solipsism as somehow shared. Discussing Moving Kings in 2017, Cohen said that he pursues, more than anything, a certain truth, a specificity, and that this is not a shameful pursuit. Judy, Ruben's daughter, hates her nose and wants desperately to change it, to alter it to assimilate into normal 1950’s notions of aesthetic beauty, and she tries, Ruben ascertains, to engineer a scheme to get her nose smashed by a doorknob so she can get a new nose. This is a specific event, something sort of absurd, and yet it speaks to a larger issue, one experienced, in different ways, by so many different people. Cohen is looking at the self-consciousness of American Jews, and at tradition, a lot of tradition, of which Jewishness has much.
“Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves up out of concepts," William Gass wrote, likening the novel and philosophy to brothers born of blood, a family unasunderable and forever feuding. Cohen has been likened to a philosopher before, and the way he uses language has been called philosophical, but he said, in 2006, “Not being a philosopher, and never really having an affinity for Wittgenstein beyond a handful of intuitions most people make before ever reading him, I am not sure what to say about ‘the limitations of language’ … Thoughts are pure, words aren't.” The goal of the writer is to erect a world of words, not just to describe to us what he sees, but to create a realm reflective of our own, in that fish-eyed way one might find one’s self staring back in the gleam of a convex mirror, discerning through distortion the tepid inevitabilities of life. The world of words made by Cohen and his preternatural gift for gab is a ridiculous one, and yet it is our world. Consider, from Moving Kings, how “an orb of meat rotated within molten coils,” or the Faulknerian habit of fusings words, like a light that gets "bugswarmed." Things resemble other things, as when a "seesaw [juts] up from the weeds like an errant missile," etc. He writes plain sentences, simple sentences, and he modifies, augments, alters the subject-object syntax, usurps assumed meaning. He experiments, mad scientist-like, with metaphor and unusual verb choice. He writes with the ache of uninhibited sentience, employs proxy protagonists who talk how he talks, uses repetition of phrases to create a rhythm; sometimes the words just flow, paragraphs dripping with the venom of the observant ogler: "They passed a sign for Ben Gurion—in Israel, it felt like you were always going to, or from, or merely passing the airport, and every sign told you how far you were from the airport, as if it were important to be constantly aware of the precise kilometer distance between this life and an escape." Or, "A crumbling aggregate of residential buildings quaked up on rickety struts as if they were about to falter on prostheses."
Moving Kings depicts a language barrier between transatlantic kin, while Book of Numbers offers two separate voices, that of the ghost writer and that of his subject, which slowly coalesce into something new, the bastard banter of Yiddish and New Yorkish. The Netanyahus is told in a smart but colloquial voice, just as astute to the undulations of the language as Moving Kings, with American-Jewish lingo and verbiage in Ruben's sections and more Israeli-Jewish in epistemic and epistolary sections. Arguments between grandparents and grandkids break out over dinner, with barbed banter sometimes as sharp as Gaddis. The Netanyahus is replete with linguistic bravado, e.g. snow "hissing down like static from a world turned-off," or a Thanksgiving dessert described as "apple rhubarb brown betty over which whipped cream was sprayed, was shaken and sprayed from its rocket-canister, in liberal white-petaled florets." Chairs are "spindly-legged… plainmade stick-stuff fitted together by some regional commune of unmarried ladies back in the coalblack nethers of the 1880s, $36 for the pair." Cohen can careen between baroque and braggadaccio and wry banality, and as he gets older, he seems to be calming down, his meta hijinks, occasionally cumbrous (as in his story "Emission") now more eloquent, less pleased with their own cleverness. To read Cohen is, as Nietszche said, to hear with a third ear, that ontological orifice that allows us to hear and speak in a voice that is ours. Or someone else's. There is a punctilious method to punctuation, a mathematical schema to which English sentences adhere, and there is a uniquely human chaos seething in the soul. The writer has to figure out how to articulate the latter with the former, posing all kinds of quandaries about the limits of language. The quotidian method of communication collapses in the mind of a scribe. We read fiction, James Wood writes in his How Fiction Works, because it is alive, and we are alive. (Wood, who gave us the term Hysterical Realism, is a noted enthusiast of Cohen’s work.) It is that beam of light that obliterates the brumal fog in the brain. There is something of an ego in Cohen's writing, or perhaps an unrelenting desire to overcome self-loathing—he did once say, after all, that no one writes a thousand-page book without some hope for literary greatness, a comment made about Gaddis's The Recognitions, but which also applies to Cohen's 2010 cinderblock of a book Witz, which was, Cohen said, an attempt at writing the last Jewish novel, a “small-penis, big-ego” book. A balance of portentous and precious, it is the novel of a young man wild with ardor. Here, as in subsequent books, Cohen's voice veers into gerrymandering, an old oral affliction shared by many New Yorkers and former-New Yorkers who fled the city for Jersey. And the brackish sense of solipsism, "Work as joy, inaccessible to the psychologists," as Kafka put it.
In The Netanyahus, Judy, Ruben's daughter, is writing an essay on fairness for a Vassar application, an essay her father returns every time with more red ink. The notion of “fairness,” different, Ruben notes, than “what is fair,” recurs throughout the novel. What is fairness? Is it affirmative action? Is it every-man-for-himself neo-capitalism? Is it, as Ruben's father tells Judy, doing not what one believes, not what they feel in their aching marrow, but what everyone (in this case those who read school applications) wants to hear? Is it performative? Is it being married to the same saggy-breasted woman for decades while younger, firmer Jewesses promenade around? Fairness is something we have to live up to, Judy says; fairness is a false ideal, her grandfather rebuts. "All of us are born how we are born and suffer how we suffer and if even God can’t make us equal who are we to think our laws can? … Or maybe God doesn't want us to be equal," Ruben's father says, as a way of shutting down his granddaughter.
The novel is dedicated "To the memory of Harold Bloom," and indeed, a story Bloom told Cohen, about his encounter with the real-life Netanyahu, an expert on medieval Spain, to whom Bloom was assigned, very much like Ruben in the novel. Something Bloom said, that Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer were great writers who never wrote their defining opus (in typical Bloomian rarefied assuredness, he says Mailer's closest is the maligned—mostly unfairly—tome Ancient Evenings), can be applied to Cohen as well. He writes very good, almost great novels, with a surfeit of brilliance, and his essays make his genius redoubtable; and yet, as good as all of his writing is, he has yet to produce his one defining masterpiece. (Book of Numbers made Bloom's posthumous list of novels to re-read, calling it "shatteringly powerful. I cannot think of anything by anyone in [Cohen's] generation that is so frighteningly relevant and composed with such continuous eloquence. There are moments in it that seem to transcend our impasse.") The Netanyahus is brisk, brilliant, brazen; one reads it quickly, immersed in its language; its dexterous descriptive prowess, its observations on then-modern culture viewed with enlightened hindsight.
Bloom, again, on Bellow: “His stylistic achievement is beyond dispute, as are his humor, his narrative inventiveness, and his astonishing inner-ear, whether for monologue or dialogue. Perhaps his greatest gift is for creating subsidiary and minor characters of grotesque splendor, sublime in their vivacity, intensity, and capacity to surprise.” Cohen has a similar inventiveness and inner-ear, sense of humor, and vivacious conflab. But is it a Great Novel, capital G, capital N? I don't know. It has one serious flaw (though maybe this is a case of what I wanted versus what Cohen wanted), and that’s Ruben, who was based on Bloom but doesn't resemble him quite enough. Bloom was himself an indelible, sometimes grotesque character in the American literary landscape, a man of edified splendor and great intensity, a gadfly and great orator, a character in life and almost a great character on the page.