Joshua Cohen is a showoff and throwback. Released this June, his latest novel “The Netanyahus” opens with one of those delirious juggling acts of a paragraph that demands to be quoted at length:
My name is Ruben Blum and I’m an, yes, an historian. Soon enough, though, I guess I’ll be historical. By which I mean I’ll die and become history myself, in a rare type of transformation traditionally reserved for the purer scholars. Lawyers die and don’t become the law, doctors die and don’t turn into medicine, but biology and chemistry professors pass away and decompose into biology and chemistry, they mineralize into geology, they disperse into their science, just as surely as mathematicians become statistics. The same process holds true for us historians — in my experience, we’re the only ones in the humanities for whom this holds true — the only ones who become what we study; we age, we yellow, we go wrinkled and brittle along with our materials until our lives subside into the past, to become the very substance of time. Or maybe that’s just the Jew in me talking … Goys believe in the Word becoming Flesh, but Jews believe in the Flesh becoming Word, a more natural, rational incarnation …
No one else writes sentences like this today. All of the book’s greatest strengths lay bare right there on the first page: the revelatory language (“mineralize”!), the intelligence, the jokiness and the Jewishness. It’s a fitting introduction to a smart, tremendously entertaining book that wraps huge questions of Jewish identity and diaspora in precise, erudite prose.
Cohen’s Blum will go on to tell readers that he is, as the book’s back cover mentions, “a Jewish historian — but not a historian of the Jews.” As the only Jewish faculty member at Corbin College, a fictionalized version of 1950s Cornell University (N.Y.), Blum weathers a constant, low-level barrage of antisemitic jokes, remarks and microaggressions. “Raised to react to provocations in the style of Jesus Christ, whom [he is] regularly accused of having crucified,” Blum maintains an air of mordant humor however, and has, against all odds, created a relatively happy life for himself, his wife Edith and their daughter Judy. This delicate equilibrium is shattered by the arrival of the novel’s titular family: historian of the Spanish Inquisition Benzion Netanyahu, his wife and their three sons. (The middle child, Bibi, will grow up to be a certain militant, corrupt politician, known for his right-wing policies and support of illegal settlements.)
Netanyahu has come to Corbin seeking a job in the history department. Blum, as the only other Jew for miles, has been assigned the unenviable tripartite role of host, escort and chaperone to the fiery “son of Zion.” Netanyahu’s arrival is preceded by two letters from former colleagues. The first, a rabbi in Philadelphia, describes the arch-Zionist as “a man who worked tirelessly to build not just a career but a state — a Jewish state!” The other, a lecturer at Hebrew University, calls him a “zealot,” a “rabble-rouser” and a man “afflicted with the hubris of the wounded intelligentsia.” Netanyahu has left the fledgling Jewish state in anger over its leadership (“accomadationists, concessionists, barely Jewish incarnations of Neville Chamberlain”), who are not sufficiently radical for this disciple of the right-wing Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
“The Netanyahus” is both a domestic drama and a novel of ideas. It speaks to Cohen’s particular talents that he does not so much braid the different strands together as show how they naturally coalesce. Cohen’s ideas lend weight to what might seem trivial, banal moments of middle-class discontent, which in turn serve to humanize and dramatize complex, academic questions of Jewish identity and belonging. An episode familiar to any 20th century family drama (Judy is upset with the size of her nose) assumes an existential character when placed in the context of Netanyahu’s lectures on assimilation and violence. Despite its numerous academic accoutrements and back-and-forths about Zionism and Jewishness, the book never devolves into a stale game of intellectual play.
Of course for Cohen’s characters, these ideas are literally life and death — a different, though no less weighty version of words and material reality becoming one. Cohen makes this point especially clear in another long, inimitable passage near the end in which Blum imagines Netanyahu addressing him directly: “You, Ruben Blum, are out of history; you’re over and finished … Your life here is rich in possessions but poor in spirit, petty and forgettable, with your frigidaires and colors TVs, in front of which you munch your instant supper, laugh at a joke and choke, realizing that you have traded your birthright away for a bowl of plastic lentils … ” None of Cohen’s words are especially original, but he says them uncannily well.
Any review of Cohen will tell you two things: that he’s a new branch on the sprawling, knotty postmodern tree of David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, and that he’s underappreciated, two facts that are obviously linked. Has there ever been a worse time to write in the tradition of what my co-editor calls “the male manipulator canon”? Cohen has leaned into his outsider status, skewering many dominant trends in contemporary literature, from the MFA (“a degree in servitude”) to the kind of lazy, bloggy, solipsistic books that writers like Tao Lin seem to print out straight from Twitter.
Like Cohen, many of these authors write about these ideas, identity and their interchangeability, especially for marginalized communities. What makes Cohen’s book stand out? The willful anachronism of course, but more than that, it’s his style. Cohen is simply one of the best prose stylists writing in English today. The novel contains long, ornate passages like the one Cohen unfurls on the first page, but it also includes a plethora of delightfully precise descriptions that pin their subjects right through the center so that they stick, fixedly, in the reader’s mind. Netanyahu wears “floppy bluchers whose soles flapped loose like a horse’s lips.” Two privileged, unimpressive professors are described as “ivy-smothered idlers; genteely lazy, slumming Bramhins.” The head of the history department is described as “a jolly old St. Nick gone glabrous, his bald head resembling the pumpkin left outside Fredonia Hall to ripen past its season; some odd crooked warty pumpkin flushed with red broken veins and purple capillary-dapplings, frozen-ver in a white skin of rime.”
While it may only be, as its subtitle declares, “An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family,” “The Netanyahus” is an unapologetically brilliant performance from one of our best living writers. Cohen’s swaggering, virtuosic prose sets him apart from his peers. His is the rare contemporary book where the ideas and the prose equal each other in their intensity and intelligence.