On Christmas Eve 1999, all the Jews in the world die in a strange, millennial plague, with the exception of the firstborn males, who are soon adopted by a cabal of powerful people in the American government. By the following Passover, however, only one is still alive: Benjamin Israelien; a kindly, innocent, ignorant man-child. As he finds himself transformed into an international superstar, Jewishness becomes all the rage: matzo-ball soup is in every bowl, sidelocks are hip; and the only truly Jewish Jew left is increasingly stigmatized for not being religious. Since his very existence exposes the illegitimacy of the newly converted, Israelien becomes the object of a worldwide hunt...
Meanwhile, in the not-too-distant future of our own, "real" world, another last Jew—the last living Holocaust survivor—sits alone in a snowbound Manhattan, providing a final melancholy witness to his experiences in the form of the punch lines to half-remembered jokes.
See our Events page for a list of readings Joshua Cohen will be doing in support of the novel.
Read Dalkey Archive's interview with Cohen here.
Author Joshua Cohen
Title First Published 11 May 2010
Nb of pages 824 p.
Publication Date 11 May 2010
Nb of pages 824
Dimensions 5.9 x 8.9 in.
List Price $18.95
Over There, Then
IN THE BEGINNING, THEY ARE LATE.
Now it stands empty, a void.
Darkness about to deepen the far fire outside.
A synagogue, not yet destroyed. A survivor. Who isn't?
Now, it's empty. 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.
"A rhetorical Apocalypse, the Semitico-literary eschaton. To found the genre of genre-annihilation, that was the intent. No more Jewish bookery. "Never again!" "Never forget!" "
Witz's witty and wearing logorrhea does ultimately persuade, if only as an ironic feint for Cohen's real achievement, and promise: a fiction featuring heterodox Jewish experiences—among other things—that aren't gravely universal or world-historical, that can once again be small, specific, situated, and strange.
Young writer Cohen (A Heaven of Others) has certainly outdone himself in this epic, a postapocalyptic whirlwind of a novel that features Benjamin Israelien, the world's final Jewish man. He's born full grown, bearded, and bespectacled into a world where Ellis Island is turned into a concentration camp. Despite the book's length, Cohen doesn't stop to elucidate the how's and whys of the catastrophes. Instead, we get geysers of paragraphs
Witz is vile; it is hilariously, outrageously, thoughtfully, and unapologetically vile in a way that Philip Roth in his best masturbation fantasy could never be. What is viler than dentists in Witz fantasizing about sodomizing a shiksa patient's nasal cavity? Perhaps nothing. However, hypocrisy and ugliness have nowhere to hide in Witz. Jews have been persecuted and marginalized everywhere and by everyone since the beginning of time. In Witz, the imminent destruction of the chosen people is what it takes for Jews to get some respect around here, and isn’t it so true?
Witz is grim, comedic and cynical. Cohen riffs on borscht-belt humor as easily as he does on metafictional legends such as Thomas Pynchon, another master of the absurdist, picaresque fantasy novel. Some will find this exhausting. For its chosen readers, however, Witz will stand as a memorable and utterly unique literary experience.
Witz . . . [is] the sort of postmodern epic that arrives like a comet about once every decade, like Infinite Jest or Gravity's Rainbow. Like any epic, it defies summary and 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.
In this ambitious novel, Benjamin Israelien—born full grown, bearded, and wearing glasses—is the last living Jew, a national celebrity and Messiah-like great hope for an America terrified of losing God's grace. In more than eight hundred pages of dense, often self-amused prose, he tours in a big revival show, visits Holocaust sites ("Whateverwitz" in “Polandland”), and even makes a brief sojourn in space with a tentacled alien named Doktor Froid. “Witz,” as Cohen explains, means “joke,” and the novel overflows with puns, allusions, and Borscht Belt zingers, in an incantatory modernist style. But the story, which, for all its intellectual energy, values cleverness above clarity, is a bleak one, in which the flesh is cursed, life is absurd, and the end is near.
[A] very serious comic epic that is enormously challenging and enormously rewarding and unlike anything else that's come out of this — that is, Josh’s and my — generation. -Justin Taylor
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Genres : Fiction : Jewish-American
Genres : Fiction : United States and Canada
Countries : United States of America