The Conspiracy

Witz: Incomprehensibly pretentious prose written in an invented syntax

Witz: almost as long as the longest Harry Potter book's US edition

“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” &#8212 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 &#8212 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 &#8212 the first fifteen pages, at least &#8212 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.

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8 Older Responses to “Witz: Incomprehensibly pretentious prose written in an invented syntax”

  1. Dave Gracer
    December 27, 2010 at 10:22 pm #

    Thanks for the post. I’d never heard of the book, and am now intrigued despite your take on it. I’ve been working on my epic for almost 14 years, and I know of at least two dozen other people doing the same — working on theirs or [relatively] recently having published. Therefore I have to fault your dismissal of the form: it’s not popular, granted, but some of us are keeping true to our muse just the same.

    In a related vein, not all difficult books are necessarily brilliant. But book publishing isn’t an easy thing these days: someone, or likelier a bunch of someones, must have felt pretty strongly that this massive, costly book was good AND that it would find a readership of those who felt likewise. It took a little while for Joyce to find support; a lot of people wrote him off as incomprehensible, but have a look at the scholarship on his work. He shot for the moon and did pretty well.

    If you’re willing to mail me that book I’ll reimburse postage. Sounds like you won’t be needing it.

  2. David A.M. Wilensky
    December 28, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    Dave, thanks for your comment. I know that I’m the minority opinion on this book, but I don’t accept that the agreement for a some academics and literature reviewers makes ti good. And they are certainly in agreement.

    And I shall be needing the book. It is an excellent paper weight.

  3. Larry Yudelson
    December 28, 2010 at 1:49 pm #

    Have you read this season’s other 1000-page Jewish novel, The Instructions?

  4. Marcus
    December 28, 2010 at 2:11 pm #

    “I don’t accept that the agreement for a some academics and literature reviewers makes ti good.”

    Yes, you are certainly the true arbiter of literary value! Obviously you know far more than all these so-called experts. Eff ’em.

  5. David Zarmi
    December 28, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    Hilarious. Thanks for sharing. I don’t get how anyone got a plot out of that… And how would anybody convert if there’s only one Jew left? If only b’khorim ar eleft, they better do some quick conversions before they dwindle below three… But that’s so sad – all those amazing Jewish women…

  6. Jfry
    December 28, 2010 at 3:05 pm #

    So you wrote a review without having read the entire book?

    Are you serious or is this some incredibly high-brow, meta-critic joke that I just do not understand?

    I really hope the latter because if it is the former, you just demolished your credibility as a reviewer.

  7. David A.M. Wilensky
    December 29, 2010 at 11:13 am #

    Larry, no. I think I’m just gonna stay away from novels that long for a while.

    Marcus, yeah. I’m not even sure what that typo was supposed to say. It’s kind of like Witz, except that nobody edited the comment to make sure it made sense before it was unleashed on the world.

    But seriously, Marcus, I’m the first to admit that experts are a good thing and that they probably know more than me. I just question whether novel, which implies a kind of mass-market appeal, is a good label for this stratospherically high-brow gibberish. Refer to my comment for Jfry below, too.

    David, word. Again, only fifteen pages, so the details of the plot, like how people converted with only one Jew left, escaped me.

    Jfry, I think it’s a little of both. It’s not like I read fifteen pages, lied about it, and then wrote a review of the whole book. This was meant more as a few thoughts on the worth of reinventing the Jewish novel if the new version is completely unreadable to people who aren’t experts.


  1. A paperback that can stop bullets? « New Voices - January 3, 2011

    […] I wrote last week about how much I didn’t like the new “masterpiece” of Jewish fiction, “Witz.&#8221… […]

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