Regarding Joshua Cohen’s Novel ‘Witz’

Dear Mr. Cohen,

I’m sorry. I’m letting go. I got through 200 pages and I can’t do it. I don’t look forward to reading Witz anymore. I don’t look forward to bringing it with me to places. I’m no longer proud to be reading it. I have to put it down.

It’s the style of the thing. The way the sentences are put together. The grammar is yiddishized, which I appreciate, but the predicate and subjects, backwards they are. Which would be fine if the bodies of the segmented worm-like sentences didn’t go on in impassioned lists of unengaging noun-phrases, choking on themselves, on their mundane details, which seem important but aren’t. They take up pages and pages. So when a verb happens, when action occurs, I’m either lost in the list or I’ve lost interest.

When I do understand what’s happening I find myself asking you thematic questions that start with “why,” like: Why kill the Jews? Or more superficial questions, like: Why kill them on such a cliche night as the turn of the millennium? And even logistical questions, like: Why is the subtitle “The Last Jew in the World” present in your Library of Congress title, but nowhere else on the novel itself?

Though the accusation that this book is a Jewish Gravity’s Rainbow has been rejected, it feels to me like that’s what’s happening. I like that idea. I like these kinds of books. I read V. and Gravity’s Rainbow. I read Infinite Jest. I read Gass’s The Tunnel. I like this kind of thing. Plus I’m young and Jewish. And you’re young and Jewish. This should be the perfect book for me.

But I find myself rolling my eyes at it. I’m falling asleep reading it. I rarely feel like I’m inside it and I feel confused when I feel like I am. In a word, I’m disappointed.

Maybe the heat is getting to me in Brooklyn. Maybe I’m not doing something right. I don’t know. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. You’ve spoken publicly about these kinds of concerns, and you have interesting things to say. I’m flexible. I’m still willing to read it. I want to want to read it. Is there anything you can suggest? Some encouragement? Some promise or hope? Something?

David Backer


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