on October 29, 2009
A Conversation about Joshua Cohen's A Heaven of Others
by Kyle Minor and Justin Taylor
(originally appeared in The Rumpus)
A few weeks ago, the literature blog HTMLGiant hosted a heated discussion about whether or not difficult modernist novels like James Joyce's Ulysses might find a publisher in today's literary marketplace. Of the hundreds of responses to the thread and its follow-ups, the one that interested me most was Justin Taylor's assertion that modernism's true heir was born in 1980 in southern New Jersey, lived in Brighton Beach, and was in the midst of a period of extraordinary productivity despite an absolute lack of any significant critical attention. His name was Joshua Cohen.
I was skeptical, but the next day I ordered a copy of A Heaven of Others, Joshua Cohen's fourth book, published by tiny Starcherone Books of Buffalo, New York. It arrived shrink-wrapped in a brown box, a slim volume with a monochromatic cover featuring a stylishly crude pencil and ink drawing of a boy hunched over himself and looking at his feet.
Neither the cover nor the size of the book signaled ambition. The frontispiece, however, did, announcing the book's full and expanded title--A Heaven of Others, Being the True Account of a Jewish Boy, Jonathan Schwarzstein of Tchernichovsky Street, Jerusalem, and His Post-Mortem Adventures in, & Reflections on, the Muslim Heaven--and then: as Said to Me and Said through Me, by an Angel of the One True God, Revealed to Me at Night, as if in a Dream, thus revealing before reaching the epigraphs (one in Hebrew, one in German) or the dedication (which invokes Czechoslovakia, Nazism, Sovietism, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Israel, and the Czech Republic) a novel filtered through three points of view (a dead boy, an angel, and an author who communes with the Divine while sleeping), two competing cosmologies of the afterlife (or, for that matter, the present life), and the single most transgressive narrative position in literature with regard to religion since the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.
I devoured the book in a single sitting, and then I read it four more times in the weeks that followed. Each reading opened up new riches the previous reading had passed over. I pitched several magazines a review of the book or a feature article on Joshua Cohen, hoping to broadcast my enthusiasm, but there was little reciprocated enthusiasm for a book by an unknown young writer, already more than a year old, published by a house unfamiliar even to readers as catholic in their tastes as me. So I asked Justin Taylor, the only other person I knew to have read the book (and a person, mind you, I've never met in person), to join me in a public conversation meant to provoke you the reader to find the book and give it a couple of hours of your life, with the expectation that the book's pleasures will make you similarly evangelical on the subject of Joshua Cohen, and that with time the book will find the audience it deserves.
-- Kyle Minor
Minor: When you introduced me to the work of Joshua Cohen, you said, "It's like you go your whole life thinking that Beckett was the true Last Modernist, and then this guy from New Jersey shows up . . ."
Taylor: Yep. Though I probably should have said last true Modernist. But in either case.
It's a question of scope, I think. And something like a sense of the Imperative. You read Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Pound, etc.-- you get that sense.
Minor: Reading A Heaven of Others, I felt something similar-- there was that same kind of shock one gets when entering into certain works of Faulkner or Woolf or Joyce, where you simultaneously are thrilled and a little intimidated by the surface, but it doesn't take long to just fall into it, since the text is teaching you how to read the text. It's been so long since I've discovered a book like that, it feels new, but then one realizes that it's also old-fashioned, and mourns that it's old-fashioned.
Taylor: Yeah, Faulkner. That's probably a better example, since we're not talking about collage, quotation, or any of the other technical aspects of Modernism. Faulkner is a really solid touchstone, because his process isn't related to theirs, but he's still so clearly in the vein.
This idea of a text that teaches you how to read it, I think, is key.
Minor: Because we are, with Cohen, dealing with a special attention to a consciousness that requires a highish diction to take in all the wonders the character must take in. In Faulkner's case we're talking the lyricism provoked by Mississippi, but in the case of this book, we're talking a Jewish kid in a Muslim heaven.
Taylor: Right. And of course the inflections and dialect and manifest content are derived from the character--Jonathan being a little Jewish boy who lives (lived) in Jerusalem.
But the style of delivery, the form of the book, is something else again. The vastness--the sense of limitless possibility, that every thought gets thunk through every possible vicissitude--that's the form of Infinity, which is to say: Heaven, where the book is set.
Minor: One way the reader is reminded of Beckett at the level of language is in the way that Cohen turns abstractions over and over in order to get at ever more complicated abstract responses to what surrounds him. So at story's beginning, we get sentences like: "How did I get here, if I am still an I? If how and where is here? can still be asked and why?" And once the reader wraps his head around what the character is trying to wrap his head around, which is that a suicide bomber wandered into his parents' shoe store and blew a hole in his gut, and now he's the subject of an unexplainable cosmic mix-up that calls into question not only his own previous understanding of the world, but also the opposing understanding of the world that prompted the shoe store bombing in the first place, the reader feels there may be no other way into understanding than such questions layered upon questions.
Taylor: That beginning seems highly reminiscent of The Unnameable. But there's a weird tension between that and what he tells you in the frontispiece. " . . . As Said to Me and Said through Me . . . Revealed to Me at Night as if in a Dream." It's a very retro move to stick that on the front of your book. I think even when Poe did it for The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym it was kind of old-school. And there's a shade of satire in that, but not as much as you might at first suspect. Cohen's alluding to The Pilgrim's Progress, I think. Which is actually blackly funny, when you think about it, that a classic Puritan quest-narrative should be the proper "form" for the relation of a story about a mixup between Jewish and Muslim spiritual realms. Questions on questions, like you said.
Minor: Pilgrim's Progress isn't all. Even a reader as slow to allusion as me notices right away the play with sources including the Qur'an, the Book of Isaiah, Swedenborg, Milton, Dante, various Jewish mysticisms, etc. Even as the Islamic and the Jewish are foregrounded, it's the bigger questions of gods and heavens and human traffic with goodness and badness and the divine that are being called into question, and the reader wonders if what we have here might in some sense be a repudiation of childhood impositions of surety, or at least a path toward a possible repudiation.
Taylor: But that's the great thing about this book--about great books in general, right? They just keep Giving.
Minor: And here--more great books stuff--we have the particularities of the character's (and dare we say the writer's) preoccupations standing in for the broader preoccupations common to readers drawn to literature
Taylor: There's something much bigger than any one God's little red book at stake here. All those would-be master texts are drawn into the sphere of this book's universe, rather than the book's being-drawn towards them--like in the Progress, say. I like that idea of the repudiation of certainty. Because religious conflict is always, at heart, a question of competing and incompatible certainties. And this book isn't sure of Anything. Every notion seems to contain its own inverse, practically. The world of Heaven is in total flux. Even the narrative voice is dynamic and shifting. Who is speaking? Jonathan? Cohen-the-narrator? the Angel talking to/through Cohen?
Minor: Given these ends, one isn't surprised that Cohen is bold in his appropriations, and a writer as smart as the one that made this book would certainly have to know that what he has waded out into is the vast boggy quagmire of identity politics and the questions about which writers from which groups have the right to which voices and which narrative positions. One thing I love about this book is that Cohen assumes human beings are human beings, and that--this old Greek idea--I am human, and therefore whatever is human is not foreign to me (including, here, the heaven humans will or won't populate).
Taylor: Yes, and it's weird how revolutionary such an assumption is--that human beings are human beings. We need to be reminded of that, it seems, time and again, because so much of religion is devoted to convincing us otherwise. You have to be a real nihilist to become a suicide bomber--even if you are a True Believer in your version of Heaven, you are going to hope that that place is ethereal, non-physical, etc. That's what Cohen denies most vehemently in this book. It's one of the few certainties in the text, I think. That despite its morphic and hallucinatory nature, Heaven is textural, physical, real.
Minor: It's something I have especially appreciated in the work of American writers who are Jewish, notably Philip Roth, whose career trajectory seems largely a pursuit after maximum narrative freedom, and whose best work has been criticized for the very underpinnings that, it seems to me, delivers him his strengths. Cohen seems plenty aware that all this is on the table. I dug up an interview he did concerning A Heaven of Others with The Jewish Daily Forward, for which he writes criticism. He says, in part:
What qualified me to write about Israel was that I wanted to; it took no time to convince myself. The only reservation I had was about heaven: I wanted to write about the Jewish heaven, but did not feel qualified because I did not and do not believe in "it," though I should. Swedenborg mapped the Christian heaven. The Muslim heaven features prominently in the Quran, Arabic poetries and Hadith. The Jewish heaven, though, is still a mystery; it's mystic. Jews believe in olam haba -- literally, "the world to come," which is, accurately, this world if and when messianically perfected, and not "the next world," or any other world, for that matter, past or future. How did I reconcile myself? I found, strangely, I had no reservations writing about the Jewish heaven under the guise of a Muslim heaven -- in the mirror of "A Heaven of Others." As for how Israelis will receive this book, I don't know, as there hasn't yet been a translation. My American perspective, as you put it, consists of being indulged in my irreverence, only and entirely.
Taylor: Hah, that's a great line at the end, there. Yeah, the easy (lazy) way to read this book or talk about it is "look at the ballsy Jew kicking the Muslim hornets' nest." I don't know much about how it was reviewed (if it was reviewed) but I can imagine him having to deal with a lot of that. And in a way, the sheer physicality of this Heaven seems to me very Jewish- it embodies what he is talking about. His "next world" essentially is a new version of "this world." But I'm curious about what you said about Roth. I wondered what qualities you were talking about.
Minor: I'm sure the idea of the ballsy Jew kicking the hornets' nest has something to do with the fact that a book so ambitious and well-made was published by Starcherone Books rather than Alfred A. Knopf and that you and me are having this public conversation instead of David Remnick and James Wood. But the reader does sense choices that tilt toward restraint. For example, the great provocation would be to do portraiture of Mohammed (and literally, too, since the book is illustrated). This, Cohen chooses not to do.
Taylor: Well, because in the end it's not a book about Muslims. It's not about baiting some enemy culture. Not in the end-or the beginning. Or at all. It's about finding the ultimate expression of the self always already contained in the most extreme conception possible of Otherness--in this case, Somebody Else's Eternity. Jonathan gets there, and not only is it all About Him, in a way it all is him. (And parenthetically--I'm not sure if that explains why the book wasn't published by Knopf. It's an incredibly challenging text, for a lot of reasons, and I don't know that it would have made any major house a lot of money. A National Book Award maybe, but money . . . ?)
Minor: What I meant, with regard to Roth, is that we see in his early work (as perhaps with Bellow's) an obsessive engagement with James. Then, with Portnoy's Complaint, he sheds the formal constraints of James for a dramatic monologue that springs from both the vernacular particular to Roth's upbringing among Jews (but not exclusively) in Newark, and also from his protagonist's straining against the cultural restraints imposed by the same people. Here he appropriates from his own origins in a way that he knows is likely to infuriate. Then, as he moves into the (to my taste) most appealing portion of his career, he expands his appropriations further outward. In American Pastoral (and the whole American trilogy), he stakes his claim to Americanness concurrent to everyone else's Americanness by entering into stories of the other -- the Swede, the Communists, the black man passing for a Jew at Athena College. And in Operation Shylock, he certainly tries on both sides of a debate about identity in Israel.
Taylor: Okay, now I see what you're saying. Cohen's from not too far from Newark--Atlantic City.
Minor: But it's not the same New Jersey, either. Time has transformed it.
Taylor: I feel like A Heaven of Others is a book Nathan Zuckerman might have written while on a hot streak right after visiting Israel in The Counterlife, but then probably would have decided not to publish. It sounds like there's an insult tucked in there, but if there is it's not at Cohen--it's at Zuckerman. Because for all its formal ingenuity and the profound intelligence of the narrative slash its author, A Heaven of Others is a very raw book. It's an act of self-exposure, in many ways, and it feels like it was written in a hurry, by someone who had to either take enough speed to get it all out in time or else take enough morphine to never feel anything ever again. Like that was a decision Cohen had to make. And I'm speaking figuratively, but only semi-figuratively. I could ask him sometime, if it really was a choice between self-exposure and self-immolation.
Minor: This seems most apparent at the places where the book seems to really be showing its seams, such as the places where we break away from the prose for poetic interludes that certainly the author would have been advised to cut but chose not to cut.
Taylor: Yeah, I've complained to him about those, actually. I think they're the book's weakest link. Not because they're not smart and interesting and blah blah blah, but because they're such a clear break from the central conceit of the book.
Minor: Blah blah blah being, interestingly, a phrase the book is fond of.
Taylor: Hehe, right.
Minor: One reason I wanted to have this conversation is that I can't see that there is a cultural apparatus for what seems to me to be an important book, but from a tiny press, to enter into whatever is left of the broader cultural conversation about literature. Yet we need one. A Heaven of Others is nothing if not timely, but I can't foresee a Fresh Air conversation with Terry Gross anytime soon. In the old days, so far as I can tell from reading literary biography, sometimes a champion would come along and pick up, say, Virginia Woolf's self-published novel, and bring it to popular attention. But here Cohen is again at a disadvantage, as he doesn't seem to belong to any cohort of any real power the way Woolf did. It raises some interesting questions about the trajectory of challenging and ambitious literature, and, to me (and I would imagine to Cohen), it instigates some despair.
Taylor: I think "some despair" is probably putting it mildly, but yes, it's a huge problem for the culture. Part of it, I think, is just the pace of things in contemporary American life. The biggest problem this book faces today is not that it's hard, or from a small press. It's that it's over a year old. The whole culture of book reviewing--what remains of it--is oriented around the demands of the marketplace. New books are reviewed, typically with a buy/don't buy frame of reference, and then that's it. The New York Times reviews your book the week--maybe month--it comes out, or else they don't, period. Some venues like the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books take a slightly longer view, but not much. If Heaven got bought tomorrow by Vintage for a re-issue, it could get reviewed, but the story wouldn't be Cultural Conversation, or even Great Book. It would be a marketing story--Indie Author Gets Re-Packaged by Big Press.
Minor: On the other hand, any in-print book (or almost any out-of-print book) is more readily available than any time in history, thanks to the Internet and, yes, Amazon.com. I don't imagine that our yammering will inspire a run on the available copies, but what if it did? Certainly it would make for a story of the sort feeds my fading romanticism about literary culture, and certainly if word got out, it might set the stage for a more critically receptive mood for Cohen's next novel, Witz, forthcoming from the Dalkey Archive Press. I'm told it's a barn-burner--the last Jew on earth, living in Joisey. Maybe this is fantasy, or maybe today we can imagine it and speak it into being.
Taylor: And that's the great paradox of our time--the August cultural organs are either gone or have become unresponsive to the real needs of the culture right now. (At least, according to my and your definition of those needs. I'm sure some people are very satisfied with how current lit-culture functions, and the mere fact that I/we disagree doesn't make them necessarily wrong.)
But there's this whole new apparatus developing to take its place. Such as--not to get too self- referential or congratulatory--the websites we both write for. HTMLGiant and The Rumpus are part of a new way of talking about books that is emerging, and rapidly establishing itself as a fixture in the culture. If the contraction of publishing means that A Heaven of Others is published out of Buffalo instead of midtown, in an edition 1/100th the size it ought to be in, the Internet means that we can directly reach the thousand or so people who want a copy of that book, and we can do it for free. We can tell them it's there, and then they can buy it. We don't need to make a case for "timeliness," only for value. But what's even more important is that we have a space to have these kinds of conversations about the value of art. I hope Josh sells a lot of books, but in the end, I'm not his publicist and I'm not his girlfriend, so his sales don't impact me in a very direct way, other than my being happy for him. His book is important to me because literature is important to me, and he's doing some of the best work I know of in the medium I've devoted my life too.
Minor: As much as I enjoy these websites, I've lately been paging through ancient-ish back issues of the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic, and so on, and two things that they have that neither HTMLGiant nor The Rumpus has, are (1) a very broad readership of generally educated readers who aren't just narrowly focused on literature, and (2) funding such that they can attract the best work from the best writers-about-literature, and the best editing work from the best editors-of-writers, and thereby foster an unyielding and unimpeachable weekly excellence. What we get in trade, I guess, is youth and enthusiasm and more frequent publication and a broader array of voices. No use grousing about it, I guess. We work with what we've got.
Taylor: No, we don't have those things. At least not yet. And probably we won't get them, at least not in the exact forms those organs had them, because the forms themselves are passing out of existence before our eyes. But we'll get something. And we're in a position to make the most of what we do have. If we want things like funding, and quality editing, and writers who are justly compensated for their labor, then we need to figure out a strategy to make that happen. That's where the market meets the art, or strangles it. But I think the important thing is to keep those market-realities out of the discussion of the art itself. Figuring out how to pay me for my labor is [HTMLGiant publisher] Gene Morgan's problem. He'll get there, or someone else will first, or nobody will and I'll die. But those concerns are all extra-literary. Right now, as you say, we are young. And so is Joshua Cohen! He's under thirty, for Christ's sake.
Minor: Marketplace or no, I'm comforted by the notion that somewhere near New Jersey, some brave and talented writer four years my junior is going it alone without any validation, and as far as I can tell will keep on doing it whether the culture notices or not. That to me is an act of faith and bravery to rival anything offered up by religion or war-making. It's oppositional and stubborn in the way our best literature has always required. I hope after this conversation a few more people notice.
Taylor: He's in Brighton Beach these days, actually, in a building filled with geriatric Russian Jews two blocks from the sea. But as to everything else you said--Yeah, your lips to God's ears, man. Any God, or all of them. You know, whatever works.