The back cover of Joshua Cohen’s novel Witz is enticing, but misleading. It depicts an alternate history where all the Jews in the world die at the start of the 21st century, resulting in a Judaism pop-culture craze as the goyim try to preserve, imitate and commercialize Jewish culture. I read this synopsis and thought “either this kid’s a self-hating Jew or he’s got a damn good plot.” Witz seemed like a great Hannukkah present for myself in 2010.
Upon opening it, however, I was faced with some of the most challenging rhetoric I had ever seen (this was before I read Ulysses by James Joyce). Witz is 817 pages of poetic prose that requires the reader to slowly unpack sentence after sentence at a rate of about two pages per sitting. At least it’s in English, unlike Finnegan’s Wake.
I muscled my way through all 817 pages, and understood almost none of it. This happens to me all the time: I read a novel when I’m too young or not thoughtful enough to understand. Upon returning, I can usually get a better idea of the book. Salaman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was the same way: a tough read for a high school freshman, a rich one for a college freshman.
So I decided to give Witz a second try. As an English major and Jewish Studies minor I think I’m better prepared now for whatever Cohen can throw at me. After my resounding defeat in the first round, hopefully round two will be mine.
I’ll start by setting up some goals for this reading. First of all, I’d like to actually know what is happening from scene to scene. Even the most abstract of poetic texts have a basic plot, and Witz must have a big one to fill 817 pages. Second, I’d like to have some sort of idea about why Cohen chose to write his novel in this very distinctive style. Third, I’d like to be able to explain how to read Witz to other people. I wan it to be more than an 817 page paper weight.
In the time it takes me to complete Witz again, I’d also like to find more of Cohen’s other work (my principal challenge will be figuring out which of the published Joshua Cohens is the right one). To wrap everything up, I plan to send Joshua Cohen a letter about my experience reading Witz and what I thought of it.
This could take a while, so bear with me. In the meantime, I would greatly appreciate any input that might help me with my reading.
Geoff Edelstein grew up in the cozy Connecticut hills where people thought that brisket was the name of his dog. Periodically his parents would bring them to New York City, where they grew up. There he learned of the wonders of Judaism. Back then, he was a big Jew in a small pond. Now, he’s a little Jew in a big pond. By day he is an English major, by night he is the Managing Editor of The Acorn, Drew University’s student newspaper. Nevertheless, people still think he has a dog named Brisket. His column, Seriously Stereotyped, appears here on alternating Mondays.