My Mother is the Father of the List: An Interview with Joshua Cohen
This month saw the release of Joshua Cohen‘s latest novel Witz, an 824 page monster of language from Dalkey Archive. The book focuses on the occasion of the plague-death of all the world’s Jews, save one, Benjamin Israelien, who in his newfound cultural superstardom becomes an object of replication, then becomes the hunted. Beyond the plot, Witz is enormously powerful for its invention, its sound, its complex rhythms. Each paragraph and sentence alone is an orchestral thing, which in the larger context, and in the locomotion of the brutal, beautiful and often hilarious plot’s rising, becomes easily one of the more courageous and stunning outfits in the last at least dozen years of publishing.
Last week or so I spent a few days emailing back and forth with Joshua about the book, his process and influences, faith, language, and the like.
BB: Josh, one of the most immediately considerable elements of Witz that took hold of me within the first 50 pages and continued to impress me newly throughout was your manipulation of time. You move from small strokes in the flesh and room to room progression of the characters, spending lengths in what seem like moments, opening the pockets, and then suddenly, can turn from those moments and seem to scroll across large sections of terrain, both physical and in time, linking these direct, ornate scenes with a kind of historical fugue, almost like ancient visions being burped out of the deep focus, if you will. The closest predecessor I could link was Gravity’s Rainbow, and much akin there too to the way Pynchon would make time not only a motion but an almost hypersensual force, which allowed windows in the text to transcend the text and make it larger than the book. I wonder how much the scope and movement of the book was in your head before or in awareness during the creation, and how much occurred to you in the transition movements, like improvising music. I know you wrote the original drafts in longhand, and was wondering also if this affects the nature of that composing.
JC: When you’re writing a book predicated on, playing with, history – Jewish history – it’s a very casual thing this dipping into the past for an allusion or reference. Speaking temporally, to structure a book by the Jewish calendar – as this book is partially structured – was very natural for me. After all this is the calendar that, thanks to my parents, governed childhood: each different year recapitulating the same seasons with the same holidays. The opening you mention is written in seven sections, each corresponding to a day of Creation. (No reviewer has noticed this yet.) The calendrical motion, with pauses to stage scenes on or around major holidays, along with the concomitant Biblical motion – the book beginning with Genesis, the Exodus through the desert occupying the novel’s mid to latter portion, which is then followed by a new law and commentary – all arose from the very earliest drafts. As for longhand – writing by hand frees me to write by ear, not by eye (on paper I hear the sentences, onscreen I see them). This is only surface, however, and I’m not sure there’s an equivalent benefit when it comes to form.
BB: How do you think a history as bloody as that of the Jews ended up with such a quaint and mildly retarded current state of the novel (as you’ve railed against)? Are you being sincere when you aim to overflip that, with this WITZ?
JC: Because the dominant influence on American Jews is America, not Jewry – and while the American novel favors equilibrium — as do most of the great old novels of Europe, of anywhere embourgeoised actually – there’s no denying there’s also a saccharine strain here, a prizing of the happyending.
Do I mean to overturn that type of Jewish American writing with WITZ? I know I’ve said WITZ will be the last Jewish novel ever written – was I being rhetorical or sincere? The answer to both questions is that I don’t think there’s any distinction between rhetoric and sincerity when it comes to a novel: even if I don’t believe the things I say I believe I say them for sound reasons.
BB: In his Paris Review interview, Harold Brodkey was asked “What do you hold up as a literary ideal? ” He said: “Ideals are for greeting cards. I am trying to change consciousness, change language in such a way that the modes of behavior I am opposed to become unpopular, absurd, unlikely. You try to work toward a culture that takes time and conscience seriously in a real way and not as part of a tidal flow of hype.” Do you agree with him? Do you have any literary ideals, or beyond that, icons?
JC: I don’t know how I can agree with Brodkey’s own personal “trying to change consciousness,” but I assent to the project, to the project’s spirit. This is what all writers do by instinct, manifesto or no manifesto. Myself, I have no ideals – morally or artistically or really in any way at all, though at different times in my life I’ve thought different books to be “ideal.” Brodkey’s included: “Stories in an Almost Classical Mode”? Fantastic.
Icons, I’m taking this literally but the question reminds me of a night I spent in a room full of icons – Russian Orthodox icons, wood dark and heavy with bloody Christs – I was on a foldout couch and couldn’t sleep. This was in a foreign country. I was even jetlagged, but still – icons will give you no rest.
BB: A ferocity of ideallessness makes a lot of sense in the context of your writing: I’m reminded of your image of trees growing over one another, choking itself, “a canopy of closing trunks, obliterating the above.” WITZ is overflowing with this semantic and literal murder, often paired with rebirths founded on plastic pretense, as in Benjamin’s foreskin cloning, the constant resorting to jokes as an exit, or another kind of door inside the dark. What brought you into the practice of writing? Do you feel older than you are? Is this a cultural response, or of blood?
JC: I’ve always written, I’ve always been the age I am. I don’t know why I’m constantly compared to the older, the elderly – that’s an impossible situation. The dead always win. (That’s not true: I do know why I’m constantly compared – the long book, the long sentences – I just think such tactics unfair.)
I feel substantially alone in my tastes, too.
But I would like to say that I think WITZ is appropriate to its subject: the people I call “the Affiliated.” Its bigness in every sense is not for aesthetic or ego reasons but because the subject demanded it – it said, supersize me.
BB: That is one concern that crossed me in reading: that I knew I was missing things inherent to the mind of the book, based on my ignorance of their historical and religious contextual information. There are so many inside jokes, interior references, frameworks hidden in the sentences: surely this is a book that must be read and reread, even by those who do have the historical context. Have or how have you grappled with this kind of idea, that many readers will be taking the text in a wholly other light perhaps than how it was scribed? Is there advice or guideline for the unAffiliated that you might give in better navigating? Or is that wholly other experience something you (a) have no interest in or (b) don’t care to control outside the information carried in the book. How much does historical context matter?
JC: I wrote the necessary book, the true holy object and not the compromised Intro to the Jewish Novel larded with sociology, explanations and euphemisms. And so, the history and languages of Jewry had to become the flesh of the text. To put it another way, I cannot stand italics. When I open a book and a character says, “Visit your grandmother. Do a *mitzvah*” (which means “commandment,” but also “good deed”), I lose patience and read no more. The world of a book is, should be, inviolable: italics and explanatory footnotes and glossaries and reading guides, etc., all they do is exoticize the text and bring the reader further from full immersion (yes, immersion might be the opposite of comprehension when it comes to a novel). I expect that people, Jewish and not (because there’s a whole lot here most Jews do not know), will look some things up and skip over others. Larger jokes are almost always unpacked: When Ben Israelien begins secreting purple goo it’s fairly explicitly stated that this is a reference to a famous snail, the Murex trunculus, whose secretions are used to dye ritual garments. I lay that out, I give a brief history – I’m not just making Ben ooze purple.
BB: Do you see your writing or the act of writing as in communication or relation with a god?
JC: No. I think of my writing as being in communication with readers. I think of my writing’s relationship to family, friends, literary history and peers, the publishing industry, “such as it is,” and the borough of Brooklyn…. But its relationship to God, not at all. You happen to be getting me during a week of particular nonbelief. And, anyway, prophets never do interviews.
BB: What is it that pushes you into weeks of particular nonbelief?
JC: Depression. Bad luck. I’m as fairweather with faith as can be. I’ve been searching for years for a word, a single word, it would be Greek or Latin, that means “religious only in hard times.”
BB: Does writing help you have faith? Do you see WITZ as an act of faith?
JC: No, my writing has not strengthened my belief in anything or in Anyone. But Witz – an 800 page book has to be an act of faith – of faith in the reader, in the culture. Hopefully I will be more rewarded by them than I was by past objects of worship (not only God, I’m thinking of a few women, too).
BB: WITZ is pleasing as an experience in that the overall arc of plot seems very clear, for the most part. The text is able to maintain a lucid, if often quite wild and sensory shaking, arc. And yet the language, graph by graph and sentence by sentence, continues as if speaking both to itself and into the story, making the pleasure of the language alone just as carrying as the narrative itself. How much of your language dictates your plot (perhaps within those structural guidelines you mentioned earlier) and how much does what you know you need to say dictate how it is said?
JC: Almost entirely the latter – I have the plot first, the language (hopefully) follows. There are, however, a few sections, and by sections I mean brief paragraphs and sentences, that were guided by language before narrative – but I tried to keep them brief, entertaining but not impeding forward flow.
BB: WITZ is fond, as am I, of the list, as a tool for progressing both story, and in an idea. Is there a father, for you, of the list?
JC: My mother is father of the list. She makes them long and daunting. And long. After her, I don’t know: Joyce, the Oulipans…. Homer, Dante, Joe Brainard or David Markson? David Letterman? Is this enough of a list?
BB: This book was written over a period of ten years. Can you, looking back, see yourself changing as a writer, or locate certain terrains of your own life, understanding, or even literary or aesthetic influences, appearing in the pages?
JC: I’m 29 now. I began Witz when I was 20, 21 – so, eight, nine years really…. I certainly changed as a writer, as I’m changing now and hopefully will always change, but I can’t identify any shifts in the text – the entirety has been so workedover, rewritten, edited, reedited, etc., there are literally no sentences in it that stand as they first were drafted. Certainly living in Europe was crucial to the Europa section of the book, Book 6. And living in New York was paramount – this book is stuffed full with the city and environs (Joysey).
BB: You invent a lot of compound words and sound based phrases throughout Witz, do these come out naturally in your writing flow, or are they more constructed?
JC: Anything that’s compound I hear as one word, simple as that. Certainly the sounds and language interplay of the final section, Punchlines, were very much “constructed.”
BB: Have you noticed a split in reactions of those of Jewish faith to Witz? I notice in the liner notes you thank a Rabbi, but also have seen the blow ups of others angry for the novel’s ‘trangressions’?
JC: When you want to overturn the complacencies of your own community, you have to be sure not to want their rewards at the same time – I have to keep reminding myself of that. But here’s the thing: I wrote my last novel – I think a very beautiful, perhaps even important novel – about a Jerusalem suicide-bombing and the adventures of a Jewish boy in the Muslim Heaven (A Heaven of Others). If that didn’t kill me then WITZ won’t either.
BB: What authors do you most admire?
JC: More list-making? I almost want to quote Spinoza, or Pascal. Maybe: “The strength of a man’s virtue must not be measured by his efforts, but by his ordinary life.” I admire books. Most authors are obnoxious, or lunatics.
On second thought: Let me say that I admire the craftspeople. If I have to laud writers let me laud the thriller people, the crime and detection people, the hard science fictioneers, and journalists – or, reporters. What they do is often daily and rigorous. What they do is also extremely nihilistic, even if the money’s better than literature….
BB: What are you working on now?
JC: Just finished a collection of stories plus novella. The opening hunk of the novella just appeared in The Denver Quarterly. It’s about pornography, fall of Sovietism, rise of the Internet. Working on an essay on handwriting for Harper’s. And working on a novel, too….
[Witz is available now from Dalkey Archive.]