New Book: The Novel That Comes With a Warning Label

Interesting review at the Barnes & Noble Review of Joshua Cohen’s Witz, aka this year’s huge, difficult doorstop-of-a-novel. (For once it’s not a book in translation, unlike last year’s The Kindly Ones and the year before that’s 2666.)

Seems that more than a few people have gone out of their way to impress on me the sheer difficulty of this book. I had a copy sent out to one of The Quarterly Conversation’s reviewers, a person who normally eats books of the likes of The Recognitions for lunch, and he begged off after a valiant effort.

Even the Dalkey Archive–perhaps mindful of DeLillo and Wallace comparisons–was warning me that Witz is fairly difficult. For those who want a crack at this prose, Google Book has a significant chunk of the text available as a preview.

And now, here’s the one-sentence summary from B&N:

At its most polemical and problematic, Joshua Cohen’s Witz is an 800-page, half-million word, vaguely novelistic exegesis on the moral and epistemological impossibility of future Jewish novels.

And here’s the conceit:

Witz throws down its gauntlet in a cracked fable: On Christmas Day 1999, a plague wipes out most of the world’s “Affiliated”—Cohen’s wisely adopted stand-in for the J-word—leaving only the first-born sons. A cabal including the U.S. president has the survivors interned, luxuriously, on Ellis Island. They’re after Affiliated bank accounts and real estate but also, Cohen implies, an inheritance worth much more than money: the sanctifying warrant of group history, and historical victimhood.

Thus the goyim begin changing their names and augmenting their noses through the new practice of “rhinoplastics.” Forelocks and yarmulkes become de rigueur. Mayor Meir Meyer runs New York City, where the decimated Upper West Side is repopulated with observant—imagine that—converts and the Third Temple rises on Central Park South. As a satire of mendacious fourth-wave Holocaust lit—not to mention Christian Evangelical Zionism—Witz does not lack for teeth, though it bites off perhaps less than the prodigious talent on hand could chew. By Passover 2000, all the first-borns are dead, save one.

Our protagonist Benjamin Israelien is now a celebrity messiah . . .

Also interesting to know that author Cohen has “named names, including Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon, as ‘white boys who write to be liked.'”

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Witz might be a good choice for your next group reading project after Genji.

The buzz on Witz is starting to get loud. Im quite intrigued though I dont know anyone whos actually read the book, and at this point reviews are pretty scant. Every summer I try to tackle two massive slices of literature (page count wise). Last year it was the aforementioned The Kindly Ones, as well as Infinite Jest. My time was very well spent with both of those, but with the amount of reviews and criticism available I was able to research them to my satisfaction to be assured the month it took to read the books was worth it. The plot sounds interesting, but the B&N review made the book sound a bit one note, only dealing with one main theme throughout. I suppose I will wait to see if more reviews pop up, though Im not holding my breath because most reviewers wont spend the time to read an 800+ page book unless its by a well known author (DFW, DeLillo) or elicits a great deal of controversy (LIttell). Its likely I will buy the damn thing anyway because my curiosity always gets the better of me, and book buying is my main vice.

Weird. I’m about halfway through and it’s not that difficult. It’s quite a bit of fun, actually, very interesting. Not Infinite Jest, Lord knows, but a really good book, readable, original. His second excellent novel. And he’s so damn young. God knows what he’ll do when he’s older.

I would second Shigenkuni by saying that there should not even be a difficulty comparison with The Recognitions, let alone one which makes out Witz to be more difficult. I too am not finished (about 30% in), but unless the style changes drastically, it will remain readable and fun. There are so many joyful moments of pure slapstick here. The language can sometimes be a salvo of fireworks, but it’s rarely if ever difficult to figure out “what’s going on”, which is what I think enrages the average reader (see Gravity’s Rainbow).


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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