Tag Archives: Joshua Cohen

Regarding Joshua Cohen’s Novel “Witz” (Letter 2)

Dear Joshua Cohen,

You didn’t write back to my first letter, which is fine–almost better–as I’m now reading your novel “Witz” again of my own volition. I’m about 400 pages in.

Why did I pick it up again? A handful of reasons, a few of which I’ll list here:

1) I biked from Park Slope to Williamsburg through a large community of Hasidic Jews. I recalled the scene early on in your book of Hanna in the shower, washing her pregnant belly and recalling her twelve previous pregnancies, excited for her next birth. The scene was heartfelt and well-rendered and I almost choked up remembering it as I biked through the Hasidim.

2) During a late-night conversation about the differences between the modern, the premodern, and the postmodern epochs of humanity, I found myself extrapolating from your imagery of the Israelien family preparing Shabbos dinner, using it as inspiration for an idea I’m fleshing out regarding the premodern. That is, when human action was motivated by God(s) and traditions and rituals as opposed to the possibility of fulfillment of individual desires. I tend to like a book that helps me with ideas.

3) When I put your book down I read and loved Cheever’s “Bullet Park,” finishing it on a commuter train from Grand Central to Westchester. I felt high on literature.

4) After some reflection, I remembered that one of the things tripping me up about your sentences was that I’d lose focus during them and my thoughts would transmogrify into self-centered questions asked in the second-person, like: “Why haven’t you written a book like this?” and then “Could you ever write a book like this?” and then “How come he’s published so much and you’ve published so little in comparison and he’s only three years older than you?” This isn’t the book’s fault, but rather the fault of my own tentacled ego.

5) I went to Cape Cod with my girlfriend’s family and I wanted to take a big book with me to lose myself in.

6) Finally, when describing my predicament over not-reading “Witz” to a friend, I summarized the plot. She perked up and said, “Oh, that sounds interesting.”

So I’m reading it. I’m not actually sure I like it. I might want to like it more than I actually like it. But I’m inside of it and my ego has lessened and when I’m reading it I do feel fulfilled by it. Problems still exist, but whatever. It’s cool. Just thought I’d let you know.


David Backer


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