November 29th, 2011 / 1:00 pm
Literary Magazine Club

[LMC}: A Way to Feel About Joshua Cohen’s Writing (You Can’t)

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


  1. Matt Rowan

      Ok, so I’m not usually this blunt, I think, and I like to like things or find value in things, but this review was, plainly, without value — to me. All it is is an homage to the intangible joy you apparently have gotten and continue to get from one author in particular, Joshua Cohen (and full transparency, let me add I do not from what I’ve read of him and his get the same feeling, taste is what it is, I mean). If I had five minutes I could do the very same thing, though, in terms of another author I feel similar fondness for, say Nabokov. I just wouldn’t be proud of it. But perhaps you’re not proud of this post, either? Because you know you’ve effectively said nothing but “I love Joshua Cohen” in vague and recondite terms?

      I guess that’s ok, but maybe a post about the way we feel about a given author would be a better use of space here? Just a suggestion. Since I know whomsoever releases dopamine in a given reader has as much variable as the individual reader his or herself.

  2. Roxane

      If you want to see something like that, write something like that. Literary Magazine Club is an opportunity for people to respond to the magazines we read however they see fit. This is not to say you can’t respond critically to posts but I just want to point out that it’s great that people choose to engage with LMC at all. 

  3. Matt Rowan

      I guess that’s my point, Roxane. I like people’s responses to be critical, and in my  opinion, this was not quite up to that standard. I just don’t think this offered much to us as readers about Joshua Cohen, though I admit my bias on the subject.

  4. Lame

      The name is spelled “Philip Roth,” not ‘Phillip Roth.’ If you think all his work is is “Jewish kitsch” then you’re not much of a reader.

  5. Roxane

      Fair enough, but I would still say, participate instead of officiate. 

  6. Ftom

      I explained it in a previous comment —
      Here’s the thing everyone missed about Joshua Cohen’s story. It’s called “The Rules, Gulf Version” because it’s about the Gulf Coast – Hurricane Katrina. It’s about what to do with the dead body of your neighbor. It’s about community, responsibility to. It’s about time some of you learned how to read.Cohen’s “Rules” are about burying someone alive purposefully then having to go dig that someone up (before they die). This is supposed to reflect Katrina – in which the randomness of being killed was in many cases only the so-called randomness of race – blacks in poor neighborhoods…. It’s about how socioeconomics helped the hurricane’s destruction. About how you can choose to get drunk, watch the wrong TV, ignore the tragedy. But also about how when you get sober again and if you want to live sober again you’ll have to get a shovel and dig. The form reflects the FEMA rules and regulations….

  7. Hal

      above ^ and above ^ : jewish kitsch

  8. Derek

      I’m about 200 pages into Witz right now, and struggling, and this post, while accurately summarizing some of my thoughts, sounds about what i would say if I was struggling to find something nice to say about it. To finish a 800+ page book i think we need more incentive than this. I’ll likely finish it, but i sure hope i don’t feel resigned to finishing it. 

  9. michael

      fuck you dawg

  10. michael

      i hope you are drowning in student debt

  11. Melissa Broder

      So the burden of dekitschery is not Cohen’s alone to bear, here are some other non-kitschmen I enjoy:

      Tadeusz Borowski
      Bruno Schulz
      Primo Levi
      Aharon Appelfeld
      Grace Paley (some kitsch)
      Cynthia Ozick (some kitsch)
      Jerzy Kosinsky

  12. exparrot

      Last Thanksgiving break, I started and finished DeLillo’s “Underworld,” a feat that made me happy both because it was a swell book and because the book was long as fuck. I had intended on reading “Witz” this Thanskgiving and continuing my streak, but I gave up after the first couple of pages.

      So to people who have read “Witz:” worth it?

  13. deadgod

      There’s plenty of kitsch alongside (and ignorantly subsequent to) Paul Celan, but I don’t think there’s any kitsch after Celan.

      –though human pettiness and futility might be proofed against dekitschification.

  14. deadgod

      –Matt would still already have done both.

      (Not that I think the criticism is all that valid:  Alex says, carefully and in several ways, that she or he didn’t understand the story–which is a reasonable critical take-away–, in addition to praising the story’s “structure” and “sentences”.)

  15. marshall

      chill out dog

      college is fake anyway

  16. Nathan Huffstutter

      Dude, don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back. Unless, of course, you think that’s the whole point of the exercise, “because it’s there” being the end itself. I don’t know what “everyone” you grandly implicated in your original comment, but I would guess that most readers understand the title and realize the story is set in the Gulf Coast, most recognize what “hurricane” and “Orleanians” combine to suggest, most will get the burying and unburying of the bodies. Personally, I wouldn’t have made the connection that the structure of the “Rules” are meant to mirror the structure of FEMA regulations, but then again I don’t go reading FEMA manuals for pleasure.

      Oh, right. Pleasure. Rewards. Perhaps something you fail to grasp in Alex’s post is that he’s trying to grapple with a worthwhile idea, how much incomprehension he’s willing to endure as a reader in order to get the specific lyric pleasures he finds in Cohen’s writing. Your reading may have gone a little further into unpacking what “The Rules, Gulf Version” is “about,” but more importantly, does what it’s “about” go beyond the obvious? Yes, socioeconomics helped the hurricane’s destruction. Yes, you can get drunk and watch the tube instead of doing something. We know. Relative to what the story is “about,” do you think Cohen offers any unique insights? Did the story make you think about the disaster from a different perspective? Is there anything moving or funny or compelling relative to characters/ scenario? Do the language and structure enhance the story or do they obscure it? Do you like the story or are you just proud of yourself for “getting” it?

      Anyone can take a bucket of sand and sort it into individual grains: at this level, comprehension is primarily a function of spare time and willingness. What Alex brings up in his post that is interesting to me (and to some of the other commenters) is how we choose what is worth sorting and what is not. Cohen writes some monumental lines: the paragraph Alex references from the Paris Review story “Emission” is a freaking wonder. That genius paragraph also comes in the context of a hokey, tacked-on framing device, a narrative sleight that seems to serve little purpose beyond adding a cosmopolitan angle to an otherwise shlubby story. 

      As Alex’s post addresses, because of the demands Cohen’s work can place on the reader, his longer works absolutely beg the question: is this worth the effort? A Heaven Of Others mixes amazing runs of the prose with sentences where his ego seems to get the better of his ear. Parsing the intertwining voices often takes re-reading. Sometimes the voice races forward at a speed that exceeds comprehension. And, by the end, after counting all the grains, I’m not sure he had anything very interesting to say about religion carrying on into the afterlife, the afterlife as approached from a child’s perspective, or the concept of religious war from a child’s limited view. And, for all I know, he wasn’t trying to say anything about those things in the first place. I am glad that book was only 145 pages. Considering Witz, it might not make my cut for the Dalkey Winter Sale. Perhaps I’ll think differently in the spring. 

  17. Matt Rowan

      I see what you’re getting at, but I just don’t see the value in that. Mainly because it’s, in my opinion, overly simplified. I can write down numerous sentences from a given work and tell you that I think they’re great, and that no one could make a claim of the structure of the author’s work and these sentences in particular being easily understood. It’s nice that I feel that way, but that’s about as subjective as it gets, especially with only the work itself cited as evidence. And in this review, that was pretty much the same point over and over again, how well wrought and inexplicable Cohen’s prose is. Alex’s review is half-baked. It might have been something, but instead it was a lot of build up with minimal (if that?) reward. 

  18. Roxane

      I have noticed that nearly everyone who has written about this (also in forthcoming posts), has said they didn’t quite get this piece. I’m all for challenging reading and I appreciated the level of craft in The Rules but when you hear the same response to a work from good readers over and over, perhaps the work isn’t as easy to parse as you make it seem here. This is one of the reasons I started LMC–to talk about pieces and try to better understand them but there’s no need to be smug about getting something others didn’t. I did get that it was about Katrina because of the title and some of the language but I still found this piece inscrutable. I read it four times and just re-read it before responding here and I still find it bewildering and not engaging in a way I would like to be engaged. There’s a clear purpose to this piece and a certain sophistication but I also feel like it tries too hard to be inscrutable and, at times, nonsensical. 

  19. Roxane

      I am glad I read Witz because the overall premise is interesting. I don’t regret reading the book but I will never read it again. 

  20. Nathan Huffstutter

      I think you’re looking at a dish of olives and calling it a lousy meal. Is Alex’s review half-baked? Well, it’s not a review, and I don’t think there’s any point in the post where he suggests that it should be taken as such. These LMC posts aren’t necessarily meant to be the definitive word on a given topic, but I see them being geared toward stimulating discussion among people who either read the issue, might be interested in reading the issue, or are interested in the authors who contributed to the issue. Critique of the posts, critique of the discussion, critique of whatever, all that’s cool and totally in-bounds, but that critique should also contribute to or build on the discussion.

  21. Matt Rowan

      Gotcha, Nathan, I’ll be sure to avoid these LMC posts, then. I wasn’t asking for a final word on the subject of Joshua Cohen, just something that seemed like it was going somewhere remotely interesting. You wipe the veneer of this post away and all it says is, I like Joshua Cohen’s prose because of how original/inventive it is. That’s great but, as I see it, boring and a waste of time to even mention. How does effusive praise of his structural stylings stimulate discussion, or suggest someone has thought deeply on the thing they’re writing about? My impression was it was intellectually lazy, not up to the caliber of a lot of what I read here, and I felt I should mention that. And if I had had interest in Beecher’s, this post did a lot to squelch it. 

      But that’s just me and maybe now I’m the one being glib / lazy. I’m open to the possibility. 

      As I say though I’ll be more careful, at least, in how I comment on these LMC comment threads in the future. 

  22. Matt Rowan

      See now, put in your terms, Nathan, this whole thing becomes worlds more interesting to me. I grant that you might say your comment was inspired by Alex, and the commentator whose self-congratulation you disagreed with, but I think this isn’t really true. I think this is an actual, speculative comment that inspires interest. I’m not saying Alex isn’t capable of writing something akin to this, what you’ve written here, just that he didn’t. And I wish he had, because I like to like things and I like to engage all sorts of topics in their manifold forms. 

  23. Nathan Huffstutter

      Hey, I’m not trying to police the thread or tell you how or where to comment. Clearly I’m interested your opinions on Alex’s post – if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have read your comment. In addition to your appraisal of the post, though, you also seem to have some thoughts about Joshua Cohen that you seem to be guarding, and I was trying to suggest that those might be worth chipping in.