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At Our Absolute Worst

Marco Roth talks to, yells at, and pleads with Joshua Cohen about his new novel, ‘Moving Kings’

Marco Roth
July 17, 2017
Original photo: Library of Congress
Original photo: Library of Congress
Original photo: Library of Congress
Original photo: Library of Congress

Dear Cohen,

You and I have been out drinking together a few too many times and hang with too many of the same people for most publications to allow me to review your work, at least not without one of those tired full-disclosure parentheticals that fool no one (“Josh and I talked about Saul Bellow, Ulysses, and Sanskrit epic meter one night in Philadelphia at an Eritrean bar-restaurant with green astroturf carpeting! Although he’s never let me see a work of his in progress ….”). So, knowing how much you hate bullshit and its infliction upon readers, I thought I’d loosen a few of the impersonal conventions of the book review and just write you an open letter, man to man, in the spirit of those fraternal and fratricidal relationships that occupy a lot of your characters’ headspace.

My editor will still make me summarize stuff you obviously know, and so this approach risks sounding like bullshit of a different kind. But well, there’s no way out—at least my presumption of directness has more potential to spark intellectual fireworks or palpable hits, and I’m not talking internet measurables.

So, you in?

Joshua Cohen replies: I’m in. And I’m thankful. That said, let’s not pretend that you’re not reviewing the book because we’re friends. As we both know, you’re not reviewing the book because reviewing is too much work for the money (the no-money)…

Well, as long as we’re on the warpath against pretense, I did write a review for (I hope) some money. Only, not for the first time, I’ve outsmarted myself by messing around with genre and have now been thrust into the role of your earnest straight-man interlocutor. Why don’t we start with some background on what led you to write a novel that I summed up in my head as “Jewish Michel Houellebecq,” that is: brutal and unsparing in its portrayal of people and what hopes it offers to readers. You and I have often lamented that American Jewish novelists, of our time period if not always of our generation, have been afflicted with a plague of niceness, sentimentality, and high-mindedness: “Everything is Illuminated in the Yiddish Policeman’s Union.” So I understand the appeal of writing against that particular grain, especially at a moment when White House strategy is directed by Jared Kushner channeling the ghost of Roy Cohn. Who, if not ourselves, will emancipate us from the cultural taboo of showing Jews at their absolute worst?

I like that question—it’s like Hillel 2.0. “If Jews do not present Jews at their absolute worst, who will? But if Jews present Jews only at their absolute worst, who are we?”

Or maybe we should have a holiday: The Day of Emancipation from the Cultural Taboo of Showing Jews at their Absolute Worst. Put it in Cheshvan—the only Jewish month with no major holidays. (Also: It’s the month of Kristallnacht.)

I think about this question, or I think about versions of this question, a lot: How did we become so polite? So sentimental, nostalgic, genteel? The answer, I’m convinced, lies in the “we”: in the process by which “we” became “we,” not the Exodus or Sinai or Exile processes—but America. In America, Jews came to write for Americans. Which is to say, “we” came to write in the English, or American, language.

This couldn’t be more different from writing in Yiddish or Hebrew, in the European Diaspora or Israel. This is closer, in fact, to the situation of Jews in Arab lands writing in Arabic: what “we” write here is not written in a Jewish language, and so it can be—or, in the opinion of the publishing industry, should be—read by everyone. This universal access compels “us” to be broader in appeal, or just broader generally. It’s this loss of detail that makes “us” nice. It also makes “us” valorize and yearn for the privileges of the parochial.

OK, let’s get to the book, which opens on a very long day in the life of David King, moving magnate. We meet him at a 4th of July Republican fundraiser in the Hamptons in 2015, appraising and amortizing the percentage of minimum wage the servers earn for each drink, lamenting both the cost of the tolls and the $4,000-per-person ticket; everything around him is hollow and ersatz, the rented dancers, the McMansion’s clamshell driveway; when one might expect a person of his position to travel by limousine to the nearest helipad, you send him off in the driver’s seat of a beat-up van to the company warehouses in the Jersey swamps, via the Holland Tunnel, between Bayonne and the port of Jersey, that little spit of landfill land that dangles toward Staten Island. There, he singlehandedly loads the truck with housewares, hand-picked from vast stores of property expropriated from customers who defaulted on his usurious storage late fees, or on the bank’s subprime mortgages; cocaine-fueled he sets out again, crossing the Verrazano Bridge during the fireworks display, a detour to Williamsburg to drop off a necklace for his estranged daughter, then to his ancestral house in Queens, which he proceeds to clean thoroughly before unloading the goods and making the bed for his kid cousin, due to arrive from Israel the next day and who he wants to treat like the son he never had—which is to say, he’ll put him to work for low wages and long hours moving everyone from spoiled Connecticut WASPS to forcibly evicted lower-income families.

Tristate-area aficionados will appreciate the sweep of David’s shlubby mock-odyssey. Even granting your improbable suggestion that he meets with minimal traffic, this route is a daunting passage of bridge, tunnel, and beltway that would crush the spirit of most mortals, or leave them floored with road rage. Your David King is going around in circles, and going down the drain. “Who among the living was going to shovel dirt on his grave or say a kaddish?” he wonders, but even so he knows no god, no profound love of land or person. Israel is an extension of his self-involvement, “a relationship between his delusion and his spirituality, between his ignorance and soul.”

You’ve taken a risk with this character, a bit like Babel’s Benya Krik without the laughter and the Robin Hood element of “sticking it to the tsar.” But am I wrong to see him almost as a Fagin, a Shylock without the motivating animus of revenge, i.e. someone we know as Christian Europe’s literary stereotype of The Jew? Scratch the surface of a moving and storage mogul, you suggest, and behold a dealer in legally stolen goods, an agent and catalyst of the banksters expropriation of land and property from the vulnerable.

Honestly, I’ve always preferred Fagin to Riah—Dickens’ “other Jew,” the selfless generous kindly Jew he’s said to have written as a response to an accusation of stereotyping. Shylock too seems heroic to me—because his backdrop isn’t just the play, but the play behind the play, by which I mean European Jewish history. I’d love to have met the Jewish mother who said, “May my son grow up to be a moneylender!” Jews were forced into moneylending—they were forbidden to own land, and so resorted to trade, in substances ever-less tangible. But I don’t want to dwell in the Middle Ages—what about, I don’t know, the 20th century? I suspect we both come from people who immigrated to this country and couldn’t practice the professions for which they’d been trained. They couldn’t, for a stretch, even get into schools—there were quotas (as there were, of course, on immigration). And so: They did what they did to survive. What fascinates me is how that sensibility itself survives—how it’s communicated to future generations. It’s a hard truth, but: The measures our grandparents’ generation took to escape the collapse of European civilization, here in America aren’t considered so civilized.

Yes, the traces of survival impulses go deep, even when people are surviving in apartments on Central Park South. But there are different ways of handling the legacy. Bellow’s Arthur Sammler tries to be a decent human being. David is more “inglorious bastard” who is also, as becomes clear in a flashback scene of a visit to Jerusalem during which he attempts to set foot on the Temple Mount, as ignorant as the June day is long. Whatever symbolism you intended by naming your anti-hero for the anointed biblical monarch, you’ve at least given us another ironic fulfillment of the Israelites’ demand to the prophet Samuel—that he find them a king so they can become like all the goyim. Neither better nor worse. No pretensions to superiority of any kind.

King David—the head of state with so much blood on his hands, he wasn’t allowed the honor of erecting the Temple.

David King, my moving-and-storage monarch, might be ignorant, but never ignorant of the fact that people like us—people who don’t do physical labor for a living—condescend to him. Certainly, David isn’t educated—but he’s worked so that his daughter can be, he’s worked and sweated (and, yes, profited off the misfortunes of others) so that she can go to NYU and study up on how to condemn him. He’s earned the money to purchase for her the wisdom that would hate him, and the thing is, he knows that. He might even be proud of that. Because he hates himself.

I didn’t realize I was the one being condescending. … But I’ll plead guilty to holding out hope for some kind of foil or counterpoint to David’s driven obtuseness, maybe once the Israelis show up. Instead you show Yoav and Uri and their various army buddies neither as exceptionally below average nor monstrous; you even spare them any of the usual glib outbursts of racism that substitutes for political or cultural analysis among a fair proportion of Israelis, either against “Arabs,” at home, or “blacks” when they make it to New York. We’re taken through the rituals of IDF training, the trauma and guilt of combat during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the travel itineraries of those able to afford it, the stifling, overprotective family life they’re trying to flee as much as their war experiences. Homo zionist, genus normali, exclusively hetero. Yoav’s English is terrible, despite the lessons and cultural exposure (“Sex and the City,” “Fast & Furious”) you scrupulously anatomize; his Mizrahi buddy Uri’s is mostly nonexistent. No one is really religious, although Uri somehow knows that Israel’s Chief Rabbi misquotes minor prophets at their army swearing-in-ceremony. You work in almost as many Krav Maga riffs as in that Adam Sandler movie, although the one about “42 defensive stances, 168 offensive stances, and no coherent philosophy” is pretty funny. Mostly, there’s emptiness, denial, depression, jerking off, boredom and displays of physical exercise and skill.

Also, the bleakness of Uri’s moshav, characteristic of much of southern Israel is rendered with damning succinctness, “halfway between Kiryat Gat and Beersheva and so halfway between nowhere and not quite somewhere. The place barely existed and yet was impossible to leave. This was because it was laid out in a concentric circling, like a target’s roundel or the cross-haired reticle of a telescopic sight, with roads that compassed around and around and around and never intersected. To get to the bull’s-eye, which was just a rusty stucco administrative office that also held pesticides, you had to walk through people’s orchards, through people’s gardens.” Thematically, however, just like David’s 4th of July drive, you’ve got us going in circles again. In case we might miss the subtlety, you let us know that Uri’s only hope for a decently paying job is as a prison guard. What these people think interests you about as much as you suggest it interests them.

Because they’re not people yet—they haven’t been permitted to be people yet. They’re just out of the army, just out of Israel, released into an America in which they can begin to feel again, to think again—or to feel and think for the first. They’re unformed, then—not children, but not yet adults—gap-year golem-vets who lack the language.

I don’t want to seem defensive (offensive?). So let me stop trying to explain, or justify, how I present my soldier characters, and just say this: I’m related to, and I’ve come into contact with, many young Israelis who’ve served, and the one thing they all have in common (the one thing all combat soldiers especially have in common) was that they completed their service hollowed-out. Without the constant companionship of their brothers- or sisters-in-arms, they were emptied. They were alone, or felt alone, and had to make their own decisions. Now that they didn’t have any officers to report to, they had to choose their new superiors—whether their parents again, or the imperatives of their own ambitions. And this—in most of the cases I’m familiar with—was overwhelming. I know a guy who played videogames for a straight six months (who played first-person-shooter videogames). I know a guy who drank about 24 beers a day, smoked about two packs of cigs, and spent all of the money he’d inherited from an uncle on internet porn: on webcam girls. In sum, they were lost. As are Yoav and Uri.

I don’t question your eye, ear, and nose for the messy business that connects the armed camp of Israel with the glittering city-state of New York and undergirds both. Jewish-owned movers—and not just the obviously-branded ones like Moishe’s and Shleppers—often staffed by a mix of semi-legal to illegally-employed former IDF youth, along with the mix of hipsters, Dominicans, Slavs, and the occasional African-American are not just a conceit you’ve cooked up, but, as you like to repeat in one of the novel’s ironic refrains, facts on the ground. But you’ve chosen which facts to select and you animate them, and what you’ve set up out of what you allow yourself to use is a penal colony or overlapping circles of an inferno, and you decide which punishments to inflict. Once things get rolling in New York with Yoav and Uri playing the role of psycho-veteran sidekick, we’re strafed by an increasing litany of humiliations, frustrations, and blowups. It would be nice, a word I use under advisement, if, for instance, women could be thought of as something other than holes out of which men come and to which they long to return their penises. Or friendship as something other than guilt-driven rivalry born of unpayable debts.

It would be. But I’m not into socialist-realism—don’t get me wrong, I like socialism, and I like realism, but the two go together like a shtreimel on a pig.

Sorry to break it to you, but these are guys who exist. These are their failings. I do like the conceit, however, of a novel about evictions in which all the movers are kind, generous, politically correct—accommodating: “Ma’am, while I recognize the institutional racism and predatory loan practices that have brought us to this point, you would be doing all of us a great favor by stepping away from that flat-screen.”

To be fair, just before it’s too late, which means that it’s already too late, you permit Yoav and Uri a bit of honest dialogue and a moment of resistance, and Yoav even discovers the banality of evil, “It was always just following orders,” he says. But he then generalizes this to a vision of the banality of existence: “To be an Israeli is to follow Israeli orders. To be Jewish is to follow Jewish orders. Work follows work orders. Friends follow friend orders. Yoav follows Yoav orders. Uri follows Uri orders.” This is where things get interesting, but the logic of punishment has gone too far. You culminate, instead, with action-movie levels of carnage—a black-Muslim Vietnam Vet armed with a hatchet (“in his waistband like an Indian” for treble karma!) serving as your avenging messenger. You call him “Imamu Nabi,” displaying your usual deft touch for proper names. That last part, we know, means prophet, the first part he shares with Amiri Baraka, who, for a time, went by Imamu Amiri Baraka, but I think you also want those with Hebrew attuned ears to hear im-anu, (i.e., with us). Can we talk for a second about the prophetic mode? About righteous anger?

What you call “the banality of existence” I call the law—the Law. The Jewish State’s as much as Talmud and Torah. Any power that purports to dictate to people their rank, their mission, what to expect of others, and what others expect of them.

Imamu’s actions, to my mind, are an extreme reaction to this—a revolt against the Law. Sometimes you can’t just submit. Sometimes you can’t just obey. But when—if not now? What, if any, are the appropriate conditions for rebellion?

Another thing: I’m not sure I agree with you that Imamu’s vengeance is too Hollywood—I’d say that if it reads that way, it’s only because city journalism is on the decline. Our interest in the national (the global) far outstrips our interest in the local—most of us, or most of us who are safe and secure in our lives, tend to keep our distance from the local because the local will typically convict us.

Stories about landlords committing arson to evict tenants and collect on the insurance, stories about owners committing arson after a bank foreclosed on their home—where are they? They’re buried in the dailies between headline reprints of Trump’s tweetings and the sports pages—or between “entertainment” “news” and the announcements section in the very back, where the massage-parlor ads used to be, and where now the legal notices tell of liens, seizures, repossessions, and auctions.

Well, I won’t argue with you about the plot dynamics, out of respect for the law of “no spoilers.” But I think we’re at odds over how acts of novelization can change our perceptions of facts. This might reveal my own deep, cultural Hellenized-Judaic (read also: crypto-Christian) biases, but hear me out: You think it would be a sign of weakness to offer a glimmer of relief to your characters, by which I mean that you withhold from them the possibility of the least moral action, even insight. They are instead participants in a ritual hazing of your devising, or, in the case of one of them, a sacrifice. Yet neither your sins nor mine, nor Israel’s, nor Jared Kushner’s, nor any reader’s can be cast off in this way. You’re so determined to flay these people that you’ve sealed off almost any messianic expectation of any kind, or maybe I’ve reversed cause and effect. Because you’re determined not to succumb to messianic expectation or dread sentimentalism: no state, no god, no love, no hope for pain, it feels like you’ve had to make moral action impossible.

Marco, I’ll tell you what—you be the judge: Who should be spared? What should be spared? Me? You? Literature? The messianic delusion?

As a Jew, I might be interested in whether moral action is possible or impossible, but as a novelist, I don’t know—I can’t. All a novelist can care about is what people think they’re doing. Is how people justify their behaviors and/or remain oblivious to the consequences.

I’m not being pitiless, then: If my characters are granted no mercy, it’s not because I withhold it; it’s because they withhold it from themselves. If David doesn’t change his ways, and/or forgive himself, it’s because he can’t conceive what for.

That may be so, but, as an unintended consequence, Moving Kings doesn’t really have a politics. Assuming depravity and indifference are as general as you depict them—and you don’t spare the left, either, “the rallies are just for political bros to meet women. … divest, boycott. Enough with the torture. Let’s bone” is how David’s daughter sums up the situation—it seems to me that you grant Israel (and America’s) current logic of cruelty, of dispossess or be dispossessed, a perverse if cheapened vindication. Also, by embracing the prophetic, as a style or manner of novel-writing, you’re opening the door to the theological in a way that, as someone who knows you, I find unsettling and unsettled. Not that you should be forced to take sides, although people will always want to try figure out whose side you’re on, but your sensibility seems closest to those who believe that Zion is God’s alone to bestow, and that will happen only once Jews learn to follow Jewish orders, impeccably. The rest is whoring and idol worship, to use the language of prophetic, castigation. That is to say, you haven’t shut the gate on messianic expectation completely but the path you open toward it seems to go in the direction of … ultra-Orthodoxy.

Politics, schmolitics. Politics is so small, so tiny. When did it become so “yuge”? When did it become—“everything”?

Marco, tell me: I should sit here and tell you what I believe? And if I did, or tried to, you should believe me?

I refuse the provocation, and my refusal, before you jump on me with your Ivy League rabbinical casuistry, is not itself a politics or political.

Instead, let’s talk literature: I was raised, the same as you, on the Jewish tradition, which is to say, on magic. Supernatural tales. Supersupernatural. Jews are always becoming possessed—repossessed—haunted. By the souls of strangers, of ancestors, of stranger-ancestors—spirits cleaving, clinging, dybbukim moving our tongues and tempting us astray. This is why I’m on no side but the human side—I have to be. The other side—the only other side—is not right wing to my left wing, or left wing to my right wing, but mystical.

Whether you buy this or not, it doesn’t matter—this is what the prophets are selling. Leave the politics for kings—fiction aspires to prophecy. And not Christian prophecy, but Jewish prophecy: Judaism proscribes prognostication. In Judaism, prophecy is exhortation. A universal indictment channeled from beyond.


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Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.