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Witz (American Literature Series) Paperback – May 11, 2010

3.7 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“A reminder of the serious import of the literary novel, the novel as linguistic artifact.” (TLS)

“[Cohen] reminds us what literature is: the self-conscious representation of the world using language.” (Forward)

“Cohen packs whole histories and destructions, maps and traditions, into single sentences. He employs lists, codes, and invented syntax with the sure hand of a visionary, his prowess and passion further emboldened by a boundless sense of scope.” (The Believer)

“The kind of ambitious, intelligent novel of ideas that will demand your full attention for 824 pages and repay you by rewiring your cerebral cortex in a fundamental way.” (The Stranger)

“The great lyrical sweeps of Cohen’s writing must be applauded.” (Library Journal)

“[N]ow that so much Jewish literature has been written and rewritten again in English, now that we have so many authors and classics, it is all the more rare and inspiring that Cohen, scandalously overlooked in America, especially by the Jewish literary community, continues to delve deeper and further with each book into an inherited terrain while making of that holy ground these beautifully uncharted territories with their own maps and legends.” (New Haven Review)

“Entertaining, adventurous and delightfully absurd.” (Time Out New York)

“This anarchic energy recalls Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, but what really distinguishes Witz is it language and Cohen’s vigorous assault on the sentence as a unit of simple communication....a brave and artful attempt to explore and explode the limits of the sentence.” (The New York Times Book Review)

About the Author

Joshua Cohen is a faculty member at Apple University, and has taught at MIT (1977-2006) and Stanford (2006-2014). He is the author, co-author, or editor of more than 25 books. His most recent books are Philosophy, Politics, Democracy (2009); The Arc of the Moral Universe (2011); and Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals (2012). Since 1991, Cohen has been editor of Boston Review.

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Product Details

  • Series: American Literature Series
  • Paperback: 817 pages
  • Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press; 1 edition (May 11, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1564785882
  • ISBN-13: 978-1564785886
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.7 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #353,834 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David Edelberg on December 7, 2010
Format: Paperback
"Witz" is a profound and demanding book that I obsessively read..and read..and read, yet saddened me a little because I didn't have any friends that I could recommend it to. Let's face it: just as people would get a worried look if you handed them Gravity's Rainbow or Infinite Jest, expect that same look if they unwrap the copy you bought them as a "special gift." How many people do you know to whom you can say, "There's this amazing post modern absurdist novel which you really need to read s-l-o-w-l-y to savor the linguistic skills of this guy Cohen, a pisher who just turned thirty." Then you add, "Oh, and it helps if you know a bissel Yiddish (although not really necessary--you don't have to be a Jesuit to read Joyce.) This heavyweight, this 'Witz,' plan a month, my friend, maybe two, because it takes over your life."
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Format: Paperback
This reminded me of a post-Holocaust Kafka, combined with Joycean wordplay, Pynchonesque ideas, and Beckettian melancholy. The words derived from "Jew" never appear except in the subtitle. Their absence haunts this ambitious novel.

For Joshua Cohen's own version of a "lipogram," a work with a missing symbol, Benjamin Israelien's void after another, now total, global decimation of the Chosen People erodes him from the inside out. His inauthenticity as a Jewish survivor provokes the animosity of the rest of the world. Ben alone remains to become what turns out more the scapegoat than the Messianic harbinger with tidings of comfort and joy. Cohen stretches his somber saga over eight hundred pages.

The novel's span challenges neat summation. Briefly, his family and his birth-- full grown, bearded, hirsute--takes up the first couple of hundred pages with fine print and extended riffs. Cohen relishes food, babble, trivia. The demise of the Jews quickly gives way to their kitsch revival, "in a language nobody speaks but everybody's studying."

Cohen hurries over whatever sense would be in this catastrophe, oddly. He grants us a few powerful scenes of media coverage of this sudden death. Logic diminishes; a reader must put up with whatever Cohen dishes out to a put-upon Ben and the sketchily drawn cabal that unsuccessfully manages his marketing.

He makes us pay attention to the page. It takes patience to stay afloat amid so many verbal depth charges. Submerged into this book, you gasp for air. The force of Cohen's atmosphere presses down on you.

Ben stops at where he would have gone to school, "yet another inheritance deferred." There, "chalk remains from the happy clap of appreciative erasers smeared into the spirals of shoes out on permanent recess.
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Damn you Joshua Cohen. You've cost me dearly. Not only in time I couldn't really afford (work suffered horrendously), but in the way you've twisted the world around me.
Expending the energy to tackle an 827 page book takes a leap of faith to be sure. It also takes a few strong nudges. When those nudges come in a trinity one has to take a deep breath and dive in. The triumvirate, all discovered in a morning, started with an excerpt on Ben (Notable American Women) Marcus' website, rapidly followed by noticing a rapturous blurb by Steve (Arc d'X) Erickson and then an intriguing interview by Blake (Scorch Atlas) Butler ([...]).
Marcus, Erickson and Butler are all heroes. They all wallow in language like words are the salt in the Dead Sea. But then a further google uncovered numerous comparisons with David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Franz Kafka and James Joyce. Ahem.
And indeed, after several exhausting weeks, I can say that Joshua Cohen joins their ranks with enviable chutzpah. The essential story has been described elsewhere here, so no need to go into that. Suffice it to say I am not one of the Affiliated, but trust me, you don't need to be. Cohen essentially paints with words, creating vast canvases that embrace everything from surrealism to science fiction, from heart-wrenching heartbreak to heart-warming hilarity. Despite the sheer weirdness of structure, there is a clear-cut narrative here, albeit with a moment of cunnilingus that would make David Cronenberg blanch. Cohen has created an alternate universe richer than any in contemporary literature. Steve Erickson, in his blurb for the book, states that "the only question is whether Joshua Cohen's novel is the Ark or the Flood." My question back is, is it feasible that it is both?
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Admittedly, I have not read much of the book, and you should weight this review accordingly. I've read the front and back of the first page. I skipped to several sentences in the dense interior to see if I was just reading some obtuse introduction or if the book would continue on in the same style. In giving it a 3 star rating, I hope to become the "most helpful negative review" -- to be a helpful marker for people who would rather read something else -- not because this book is "bad" but because I believe there's a good chunk of people who don't enjoy struggling to find coherence when reading a novel for pleasure. I'll probably tackle it again sometime in the future, but there are many books in the world, and for now I'd rather spend my time on something else.

This book is NOT an easily digestible novel. I wouldn't even call it a novel. This is nothing like Kurt Vonnegut. It is less easy to follow than Thomas Pynchon. This is not like David Foster Wallace. Calling it a prose poem is more accurate, but it's not poetry in the rhyming sense. It's poetry in the sense that many of the sections of text separated by periods (calling them sentences is generous, since many of them seem to be missing a complete thought and/or a subject-verb-object set) are ambiguous and up for interpretation to the extent that I wasn't even confident I was reading a story.

Maybe it's best to call it a long poem that doesn't rhyme and also doesn't have any particular repetitive syllabic or spatial organization.

After the first page, my interpretation was that this guy was good at stringing together intelligent-sounding sentence fragments with commas, dashes, and semi-colons.
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