Too Distracted, Almost Jewish, Not Sure, Keep Talking: On The Experience of Reading Joshua Cohen’s “Witz”

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With all of the movement from post to post or tweet to tweet, we have developed habits that are simply not beneficial to sustained and meaningful reading. And what’s worse is that many people don’t care.   Let’s be honest. People don’t read anymore; they scan. But, what’s worse, is when one can see the affect of distraction and habitual scanning affecting an author. When that happens, literature suffers and the possibility of literature disappears into a fog of words and disjointed phrases.

When I started reading Joshua Cohen’s Witz, this thought came immediately to mind.   Don’t get me wrong – I am as distracted as the next person. But when I read literature, I have different habits. I have – over the years – learned how to read closely. This book, however, has done a lot to challenge my reading habits. I have had a difficult time reading it for more than five or ten minutes at a time.   But…perhaps that’s Cohen’s intent. Perhaps he is illustrating the exhaustion of literature and something else: the witz (which suggests Jewish humor and maybe even Jewishness).

At the outset of the novel we are introduced to “them.” And they could be Jewish because the first words are Biblical: “IN THE BEGINNING, THEY ARE LATE.” The title of the chapter, however, is one of misdirection: “Over There, Then.” The words breathe exhaustion and frustration. I think: if you are going to do something or put something somewhere, don’t do it over here; do it… over there. And when I read about how late “they” are, I think that “they” might be Jews: the Jewish “I” (the I of the novel) has been impatiently waiting for them, and, guess what…they aren’t on time. They may be schlemiels.  After all, they are almost always late. The author may also be Jewish; like many Jews, he’s frustrated with “them,” those other Jews.

In truth, the voice seems Jewish; but it is, like everyone in the world, constantly distracted.   But at least we have some certainty: he or she – who m ay be Jewish – is speaking from the space of an empty synagogue:

Now it stands empty, a void.

Darkness about to deepen the far fire outside.

A synagogue, not yet destroyed.   A survivor. Who isn’t? (13)

The language is repetitive. It sounds like it is nagging:

A stomach, a shell, a last train station after the last train left to the last border of the last country on the last night of the last world: a hull, a husk, a synagogue, a shul. (13)

The Jewish language use (“Nu”) continues but where is it, like the train mentioned above, going?

Nu, it’s been like this ever since he was born, and those long hard years have all been yesterdays’ tool: the bridge crossing, the bottomless price of a boat full of holes, an aeroplane cast down from heaven, betrayed of its wings. And it’s not as if he hasn’t crawled to the end of the bargain: wriggling ever forward from garden to grave, he’s trying, just ask him. (13)

As it moves along, the text distracts itself and gets lost in time and movement:

Hours later when hours were still hours…stardeadline, falling, falling, the tickers of arrival and departure and arrival, diurinal again – the clock centerpieces upon our timetables that not only remind us when to partake but are, simultaneously, the only sustenance left. (14)

The novel develops into one distraction after the other: topics are displaced by names, places, things, that are all strung together. The listener gets lost and, most likely, will lose interest unless one cultivates a taste for distracted reading. In the midst of this flow, Jewishness ebbs away and then pops up in this or that list. But it is not a sustained meditation.   It is exhausted. And perhaps that is the message.

From the outset of the novel, one can see that Jewishness is a rhythm that is lost in so many different temporal flows of movement. One forgets where (or when) one is in the novel or where it is going – perhaps like Jewishness in our hyper-networked age, we are moving along too many trajectories. But if we are, we won’t know where it all started or where it is going. However, Cohen suggests that, at the very least, we should keep talking. Who knows where that will lead…..

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