I read the massive whole of Joshua Cohen’s WITZ thinking, “I can’t finish this” and I did and it didn’t finish me, though I thought it might and I came out of it with some collateral damage. A book can’t finish you. The intention of WITZ was an end to Jewish kitsch, and you can’t know if that end was achieved, though Mr. Cohen flattened every stereotype with his hammer prose until all the Catskills punch lines were burned away at the end of that tortuous final passage, issuing to the air like crematory smoke and now, you can’t make those jokes anymore. So maybe he did it. Phillip Roth, king of Jewish kitsch, writes about polio and geezer sex fantasies now. Who knows what Woody Allen is up to.
I read a paragraph of his in the Paris Review, a lyrical wonder about German art students on bicycles and thought and still think, “You can’t write a better paragraph than that,” and so far, nobody has.
I can’t read any more of Mr. Cohen’s books, not now anyway. I can’t. I need to build up to it, and I can’t not read any of his short fiction, which is why I bought this gorgeous debut issue of Beecher’s, a product of KU in Lawrence, KS, a town cool enough that it can’t really be in Kansas. Anymore or ever.
Therein Mr. Cohen offers “The Rules (Gulf Version)” a story concocted of rules you can’t follow. Or I can’t. Just like I conceded with WITZ, the problems I had with the text were my own, my wandering attention, my floundering ignorance on things other people know. “The Rules” are but a few pages —he’s got sentences longer than this—but like when handling a greased snake, a task with but one (1) rule: hold onto the snake, you can’t. It wriggles free from every traditional grasp.
And I offer this not as a complaint, of even really a critique—you can’t critique a thing you can’t understand —but an appreciation, a thank you. I won’t (note: different from can’t) work out whatever Cartesian monster chart that governs a logic I can’t understand just through the reading; it doesn’t (again, not can’t) reap rewards that understanding something does. I’ve learned in forty plus years of faulty cognition that you can’t understand everything; in fact it can be argued that you can’t fully understand anything no matter how hard you try. Your ignorance gets in the way, and you stumble over it repeatedly until you mutter “fuck it” and call it chaos and move on with your life.
I don’t understand what “The Rules” are for, even when I read it again, each one (1) of those parenthetical contract numberings throbbing in my head like so many deadheaded jokes. There is likely a German word for simultaneously wincing and giggling, and probably Mr. Cohen knows that word off the top of his head.
I can’t say I really need to know the structure of this story to say I feel thrilled by whatever the structure is, that there is a dude out there who cares about structure the way Mr. Cohen does, so much so that he drains the kitsch out of structure, sandblasts off that dry structure poet-voice forthright horror prose that plagues earnest short fiction in literary magazines. You can’t say of Mr. Cohen’s writing, “I see what you did there,” because you can’t. Even when you can, like the list of bluesman nicknames, you still can’t see what he’s really doing, because he’s doing something else than what you see. It’s like his list is listing away from itself, which in itself is like those jokes he killed.
You can see that Cohen builds a table or bookshelf or an Eiffel Tower or non-Euclidean Escher escalator of words, whatever it is he’s building, it is a platform on which he can display his treasures, namely sentences like “The atmosphere is as dim as any prospect with rainwomen beside the light brush of wetsmell and pitterpat stroking…” Whatever that is or isn’t is irrelevant to the dopamine hit it triggers. Just saying that line aloud is tapping a vein of richness nobody else out there exposes. I’ll read whatever I must to get at a thing like that. It is like resigning yourself to be caught in a web because it feels so good in that instant when the spider gets at you. I suppose that is a way to feel about Joshua Cohen’s writing. It’s as good a way as you can manage because, really, you can’t.
Alex V. Cook is an author and professor of Mass Communications at LSU in Baton Rouge, LA. His work has appeared in the Believer and Oxford American and his book Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana’s Juke Joints, Honky Tonks and Dance Halls is forthcoming from LSU Press in March 2012. He blogs furiously at alexvcook.com.