Review: Witz

Man at his Witz end

By David Herman, July 22, 2010

By Joshua Cohen
Dalkey Archive Press, £14.99

Like many of the best young Jewish-American writers, Joshua Cohen lives in Brooklyn. Witz - sub-titled The Story of the Last Jew on Earth- is his fifth book and without doubt the longest and most difficult.

There are three problems with it that, leaving aside the excessive length, are likely to hobble your progress to the last of its 800-plus pages.

The first is the story. On Christmas Eve 1999, the world's Jews die in a plague, except for the firstborn males. But by the following Passover they, too, have died, except for one: Benjamin Israelien. Meanwhile, another Jew - the last living Holocaust survivor - sits alone in New York.

The second problem is the prose. The New Yorker called it "dense, often self-amused". The New York Observer said that it "overflows with puns, allusions, digressions, authorial sleights of hand and structural gags in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne." And Cohen told one interviewer that "it gets real Finnegans Wake-y toward the end". So, you have been warned.

Try this: "Being begotten by the begetted begetist whose begettable begettance begatted Big Begetters and their Big Begetters begotally, whose begattability was begotted by other begotterers begatally, and yet other begatterers besides..." This sentence goes on in this fashion for another two-and-a-half pages.

The third problem is the tone. Cohen is very pleased with himself. Witz is Yiddish for "joke" and the novel is very jokey. We meet a character called Doktor Froid, from outer space, who speaks in a mock-German accent ("Ich bin Doktor Froid"). There's another called Dim Sum, who has trouble with his 'l's and 'r's.

And that is before we get to the jokes (?) about cancer and Holocaust sites like "Whateverwitz" in "Polandland". Finally, there is the matter of jokily killing off the world's Jews.

The New Yorker, with great understatement, concluded that the novel "values cleverness above clarity".

Witz was turned down by eight New York publishers. It is not hard to see why this mix of death jokes, literary excess and postmodern trickery did not altogether appeal.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011