“The world is full of real events, real things, which have been lost in their destruction and are only remembered as having existed in written history.”
Readers who have read Joshua Cohen’s early ambitious 800-page “Jewish Ulysses” titled Witz or have at least flipped through it and have been judged by its thick spine on the shelf ever since will not quite recognize the author of The Netanyahus. The same can even be said for readers of his more well-distributed if less shaggy novels Moving Kings and Book of Numbers. While the satire is there in his latest effort, the linguistic and metafictional playfulness is hard to find.
In fact, just about everything in this brief book fits into the mode of the traditional Jewish novel. If Witz was the last Jewish novel in terms of form and content, then Cohen’s latest is anachronistic in that it fits thematically, chronologically, and more or less structurally into the types of works written by post-war Jewish heavyweights, such as Philip Roth or Saul Bellow, even John Updike perchance, if we keep in mind his Bech books.
It’s not entirely derivative of these writers, of course, but the protagonist Ruben Blum does self-consciously refer to himself as the “embodiment of the under-coordinated, over-intellectualizing, self-deprecating male Jewish stereotype that Woody Allen, for instance, and so many Jewish-American literary writers found outlandish financial and sexual success lampooning (Roth in the generation younger than mine, Bellow and Malamud in the generation older).” Blum is also a fictionalization of Harold Bloom, who befriended Joshua Cohen late in his life and eventually passed away in October 2019. In fact, the novel itself is the retelling and embellishing of a story that Bloom told Cohen, which is explained in a fascinating ending section titled “Credits & Extra Credit”.
The novel has been described as a hybrid of genres: fiction, nonfiction, etc., and a campus novel most of all, but that’s not fully accurate in my estimate. It’d be better to call it an academic novel, because much of it takes place within the professor’s home and thereabouts, accommodating as he does the Netanyahus, and there isn’t as much campus content as readers would expect when picking up a novel in that genre, not as such.
As for the (in)famous family, while we learn about the controversial theory of professor Benzion Netanyahu early on, we don’t actually meet the Netanyahus until well into the novel, brief as it is. Here’s the gist of his theory: “The true purpose of these Inquisitions wasn’t doctrinal; […] Instead, their true purpose…was to invalidate new conversions and turn as many new Christians back into Jews as possible.” Why, you ask? “…as long as the Catholics still required a people to hate, the Jews had to remain a people doomed to suffer.” Coalescing with the academic nature of the novel are compact but relatively deep dives into history, as far back as the Inquisitions but also the question of Israel, the ostensible promised land.
Additionally, we are given early on a hyperbolic letter of recommendation for Netanyahu ahead of his possible appointment to Blum’s Corbin College in NY, and later a letter of condemnation (where a generous portion of the Israel-Palestine content is), both of which help to diversify the narrative while adding some humor and mild intrigue.
Blum is tasked by his employer to host Benzion Netanyahu when he arrives for his interview, only to be taken aback by the fact that his family has arrived with him. The Netanyahus, as one might predict, lack self-consciousness and are intrusive and loud, especially their children, which breeds fairly standard jokes and awkward hospitality. In a way, each family experiences their own climactic drama, the former earlier and the latter later on. Both families, the Blums and the Netanyahus, exhibit various Jewish tropes. For instance, the Blums’ daughter yearns to get a nose job even though her parents disapprove, and then there’s the tug and pull of between sets of grandparents, the paternal pair being orthodox.
While the satire is indeed there, perhaps made more potent by the fact that it targets a real and powerful family, it doesn’t quite have the same bite as the satire in Cohen’s earlier work, and certainly this is not the hysteria one would find in Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, closer to his Zuckerman series if anything.
Here’s one example of the humor so you can decide if it’s something that would tickle your tonsils:
“There was a fad at the time, especially among my students, of trying to figure out how many of them could fit into a phonebooth—for a while, this seemed to be among the most pressing concerns of the Eisenhower Era: ‘Will we obliterate the planet through thermonuclear war?’ was right up there with, ‘How many co-eds can we stuff into this phonebooth, this clothes-closet, this refrigerator’s cardboard box?’ Photographers and film-crews would show up whenever a stunt was staged and record its hormonal-hilarity for TV, film, and the pages of the yearbook. This persistent effort among my students to accommodate as many of their young bodies as possible into a single cramped space was as much an attempt to exorcise the age’s confusing combination of stifling conformity and unrestrained consumption as it was a rationale for sexual touching, in a sort of unconscious dress-rehearsal for the revolution to come: I’m not tit-grabbing for the sake of tit-grabbing, I’m just trying to set a new world-record…for how many of my friends I can fit into a package of Cracker Jack…”
While Cohen’s latest may disappoint fans of his more innovative and risqué fiction, this effort will please many who prefer their novels relatively conventional, specifically those who rejoice in the rich tradition of Jewish literature, and there’s something to be said of fictionalizing powerful families if for no other reason than to piss them off, but as the novel’s subtitle says, the historical episode is “minor and even ultimately negligible.”
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George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.