Joshua Cohen's Witz is a trade paperback containing 817 very densely-packed pages published by the wonderful Dalkey Archive Press of Urbana-Champaign, IL. When I began reading it I couldn't help but think of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, William Gaddis's The Recognitions, Jean-Pierre Martinet's Jérôme, James Joyce's Ulysses, Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love, Alexander Theroux's Laura Warholic, Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, and of other literary monsters I have known. Now I'm more or less back on planet Earth but still reeling a little from the after effects, I can see that it in some way resembles all of these books.
– Witz has the ambitious scope of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and that book is obviously a vague background influence – is it merely a coincidence, for instance, that Cohen also mentions Perdue chickens? – but although the word 'witz' means joke, I didn't (unlike Infinite Jest) find the book itself particularly funny.
– It is immensely digressive like Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love, but has an important Oulipian element: it's a book about Jews where the word 'Jew' is never mentioned, being substituted by the expression 'Affiliated'.
– It has an esoteric language in some ways similar to Alexander Theroux's Laura Warholic, although Cohen draws from a huge Yiddish pool. And there are similar long-drawn-out sentences and unconventional compound words.
– As with Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling – whose sentences are also very long – there are long descriptive passages that hold up the story, only whereas Cohen is concerned with often violent external detail, Young is mainly interested in the lulling strains of the internal monologue.
– In Jonathan Frederick Post's 'An Infinite Frolic of His Own: Joshua Cohen’s Witz' (which of course alludes to works by both Foster Wallace and Gaddis) the author states that the main work he would compare Witz to is the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. The Jérôme Bauche in Jean-Pierre Martinet's Jérôme, as the 2008 Finitude cover transparently underlines, is clearly an allusion to Bosch.
– I was reminded of the difficulty of William Gaddis's The Recognitions, somewhat akin to E. M. Forster's bizarre but brilliant analogy, in Abinger Harvest, between the meaning of Virginia Woolf's writing and a pen trapped in his coat lining: 'So near, and yet so far!'
– Finally, it is evident that Joyce's Ulysses is an influence behind Witz, as it is an obvious influence (no matter how small) behind any serious work written after 1922.* But understandably, Joshua Cohen was annoyed when an unnamed friend of his father's described Witz as a 'like the Jewish Ulysses', completely ignorant of the fact that, as Cohen states in The Daily Beast (15 June 2010): 'James Joyce’s Ulysses is already the Jewish Ulysses'.
Cohen wrote this in an essay entitled 'The Heirs of Joyce's Ulysses', in which he names the works from twelve different countries as the 'Ulysses' of those countries, including Woolf's Mrs Dalloway as 'The English Ulysses', Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood as 'The Welsh Ulysses', etc. Oddly, there is no French Ulysses, although I certainly feel that Yann Moix's 1142-page Naissance (which I've not yet read but which begins with a baby born as a Jew (without a foreskin) to a Christian couple), which won the prix Renaudot in 2013, meets Cohen's criteria as a 'Jewish Ulysses'. But a French Ulysses proper? Something from Oulipo?
What is Witz about then? Well, Cohen says '[I]t’s about a Wandering Jew – the Last Jew in the world.' This is after all the Jews in the world (apart from first-born ones) die in a plague on Christmas Eve 1999, although very soon Benjamin Isrealien – a really nice innocent guy, born as an adult complete with glasses and beard and without a foreskin – becomes the only remaining Jew, and a superstar. But maybe that's going too far into the story.
For me, Witz may be very difficult – in fact it's a book I wouldn't recommend to many people because of those difficulties – but Joshua Cohen has produced a fascinating book: one he had a large number of problems getting published, one that at least one publisher wanted him to cut considerably, but that he in the end succeeded in communicating uncut to the world. It certainly won't make him a fortune, but then that clearly isn't his aim: he realises how destructive MFAs can be: 'The M.F.A. is a degree in servitude. [...] It is a way to keep writing safe – to keep reading safe from writing'. Obviously, writers in England would never be interested in such nonsense: they only want to pretend to be innovative, sell books, and, well, just get rich if possible.
At least Joshua Cohen, much as his work may be painful (because so difficult), is trying to push the envelope, not merely going for the cash. I have so much more respect for such writers, rather than those who insist on pretending that 1922 never existed.
*1922 was the year Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land were published.