“Witz,” an 817-page tome purporting to be a novel by Joshua Cohen, has been sitting on my shelf for months. I have read fifteen pages of it. I have never been so bored by a “novel” I was so excited for.
The premise had me anticipating the arrival of “Witz” with bated breath. At the beginning of the book, a plague wipes out all of the Jews in the world, except for the first-born males. By Passover, the only one left alive is Benjamin Israelien. He becomes an international celebrity, but when a huge number of people convert to Judaism, they want to kill Benjamin because “his very existence exposes the illegitimacy of the newly converted” — or so says the back cover. I never got far enough to see if that’s an accurate plot summary, but it sounded good.
“Speculative/alternate reality Jewish fiction!,” I thought at the time, “I love it!” I envisioned something along the lines of Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” which is fantastic. i09, my favorite scifi blog, even wrote about it:
Cohen’s most fundamental inversion in Witz is to ditch the familiar tropes of anti-semitism and make the book’s alternate present an intensely philo-semitic one, with the destruction of the actual Jews sparking a perverse Jewish revival.
That sounded pretty damn good. It sounded so good that I ignored the warning signs, like the paragraph that immediately followed that one in the i09 post:
I give only the skeleton of a plot because that skeleton is more or less the only plot there is in Witz … If you can roll with the punches to get to what’s real in Joyce and Pynchon, you ought to be able to roll with them here, but be warned that this book will not be an easy read.
“Witz” is completely indecipherable. It begins:
Over There, Then
In the Beginning, they are late.
Now it stands empty, a void.
Darkness about to deepen the far fire outside.
A synagogue, not yet destroyed. A survivor. Who isn’t?
Etc. It continues in that vein for another fifteen pages or so. What happens after that, I will never know.
But I know this: It’s not a novel. This thing is a work of epic poetry. That sounds cool for a minute, until you realize that no one reads epic poetry except for academics and high school students — who are traditionally forced to read such works under duress. But it’s worse than that. I assume (academics, please correct me if I’m wrong) that poets wrote their epics in a decipherable vernacular. Cohen wrote “Witz,” on the other hand, in a completely invented syntax: paragraph-long sentences with twelve semicolons and three ellipses sprinkled throughout for effect.
This isn’t Duchamp’s urinal or a Pollock painting. If “Witz” is meant to relate a coherent narrative with any amount of concrete content, it — the first fifteen pages, at least — fails. The plot is utterly undetectable from within the ostentatious syntax.
In short, I don’t like “Witz.” I also read only fifteen pages of it, so I suggest taking this review with a good handful of salt.