It’s not easy to imagine someone even glancing at Joshua Cohen’s 817-page Modernist epic novel Witz and mistaking it for a run-of-the-mill Holocaust memoir or Eastern-European-genealogical romp, of the type that lands on the desks of staffers at Jewish magazines several times per week. But, as though to make absolutely certain that no one gets misled by the w-pronounced-as-a-v in the title, Cohen (at 29, an already-accomplished novelist and essayist) opens Witz with a sort of moat of difficulty. All seeking entry into its main narrative must cross.
For the first 20 pages or so, we find ourselves in a cubistically rendered mincha service in what seems to be an observant Jewish quarter somewhere in the contemporary United States. Then, we cross “from the world of the father to that of the mother,” in Cohen’s words, and land, still confused, at the Shabbos dinner of Hanna and Israel Israelian and their twelve semi-interchangeable daughters. At the end of the meal, Hanna will give birth, right there on the kitchen table, to a son, Benjamin, who happens to come out of the womb already a little old Jewish man. Benjamin will wind up being the last Jew on earth, and the novel’s protagonist. But we don’t know any of that yet.
The Shabbos dinner is divided obliquely into seven parts, one for each of the days of creation. In the first part, images of light are everywhere: The Israelians’ “table, like the sun, almost set”; Israel, finishing up work at his New York law firm before rushing home to New Jersey by sundown, has “the Sabbath to the left of him, Sabbath to the right, but there’s no Sabbath where he’s sitting—the sun stayed above him, just waiting.” In the next part, God creates water: Eldest daughter Rubina, making her bed before the guests (“the Dunkelspiels, the Kestenbaums, the Lembergs, the Friedmans”) arrive, imagines “her bed’s less a bed than an ocean.” Etcetera.
Cohen is not the only contemporary writer to arrange an ambitious novel according to kabbalistic stratagems, but he may be the most committed to the task—like Ulysses, Witz is a book that cries out for an annotated edition.
Cohen also has a Joycean yen for devising strange new compound words—“cleanscooks,” “pushpulling,” “tossturn,” “matzahballs,” “challahknife”—as well as for internal monologues that take place on toilet seats: One guest, Mr. Feigenbaum, spends most of the meal in the bathroom trying to defecate.
In the seventh section—which would be when God rested, for those of you who were asleep during that Hebrew School class—the guests gather up their coats, checking the pockets to make sure the Israelian girls haven’t helped themselves to their wallets. They go home. And then, as though it were the normal conclusion to a Shabbos dinner, the world’s last Jew is born, “His glasses’ lenses, smudgy with fluid, that and His, nu, you know, too, which is hairy as well, the beard down below and apparently, can it be, already circumcised … .”