Now is the month of holidays, from the Jewish New Year through the Feast of Tabernacles and ending with Celebration of Torah. My (Orthodox) friend of forty years came to visit. I showed her a page from Witz (Dalkey Archive Press, 817 pages). She closed the book, fast. “There’s a lot in there I wouldn’t approve of,” she said.
Yes, O WickedWitz.
“Witz” — which means “joke” in Yiddish, and “son of” in its various forms (e.g. Horowitz, Ephraimovich). Also Auschwitz.
A witz should be funny, no? Witz by Joshua Cohen – JC hereafter — Witz is bleak, not funny, though it is based on a joke, perhaps the greatest joke ever told.
Who tells the greatest joke?
“A mensch (man) walks into a talent agent, ouch, a mensch walks into a talent agency, ouch, next time he should use the door. No seriously folks, a mensch walks into the office of a talent agent and sits down and says, no, listen up, I have this fantabulous new act…”
JC has Ben tell it while Ben is on tour in “Los Siegeles” (Vegas). Ben continues:
“…it’s jokes like this, acrobats, juggling, magic, how I’m doing all of them just by living. Here and now, that’s the act, I’m it, that’s the joke, me….”
That is Ben’s version.
The classic version of the joke is never completed in the novel, at least not as stand-up. My summary: The performers enter, the presentation begins. The talent agent is treated to, is witness to, abominations, including but not limited to: fornication, sodomy, bestiality, evacuation of any and all bodily fluids via any convenient orifice, filth, cruelty, all of the above in various permutations or, what the (gehenna) hell, simultaneously. “And what do you call yourselves?” asks the agent. The answer is the punchline: “The Aristocrats.” *
*Treat yourself to the whole schmear –
The art of this joke – any joke? — is in the delivery. The stand-up comic shows his/her exquisitely sordid imagination, no limits allowed; anything that makes an audience cringe and laugh until tears drip and bellies ache is the goal.
The Yiddish expression “lacht mit yashtsherkes” comes to mind. Literally, “laugh with lizards,” laugh in sorrow, not joy.**
**Terrific laughing lizard cartoon, treat yourself —
Now for the novel’s story, outrageously brief: Xmas Eve, 1999. Benjamin Israelien is born a man in his parents’ “kitschen” in “Joysey” with beard, eyeglasses, self-shedding foreskin. Ben (means “son”) is the first male child, #13 after 12 girls. That night, a mysterious plague kills all Jews, except firstborn males; these survivors are transported, for their own protection, to Ellis Island. Soon all die except Ben; He becomes Messiah and is carted around by a marketing cartel. Now everyone wants to be Affiliated. As the real thing, Ben-Messiah is forced to make appearances, but He wants to flee his “Orthodox” life. He escapes, is recaptured, escapes. He is not religious, bad for business. Ben’s life is in danger. JC follows Ben’s picaresque misadventures across the US, a visit with Doktor Froid extraterrestrial, back to Joysey, to Polandland, and back again, and again.
The art of Witz is in the delivery. JC’s prose has a breathless rhythm and endless associations, e.g. wombs, ovens, babies, bread, incineration. He can’t get the words out fast enough, such genius, so talented he is, “poo poo poo” –***
— another detail, another gag, just one more comparison, expression or pun in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian. Readers who do not understand words and idioms used by JC will lose much of the novel’s humor, innuendo, heartbreak.
Here, in one of JC’s cheery-by-comparison passages, is Santa, in Ben’s house on that Xmas Eve:
“The problem with this tradition has always been once he’s gone down the chimney, how does he manage to get back up to the roof? If the devil Satan must fall, one might argue, then a saint like Santa must rise…He and with a silence that seems to twinkle returns to the den, if den it is, takes Benjamin by the hand…To take him slow, and gently as you’d expect, naked first in mitten fringed in tinsely poms, to lead Him to the stairs then up them, three at a time, and down the hall of shutdead doors to His room above the garage and its angelic ladder expected – forget it, you might as well stay a while, won’t you, make yourself comfortable, my house is yours, there’ll soon be beds empty enough; the two of them, Santa and son almost of equal size, stepping high, huge, and damn sleep loud into His room – and then Santa, holding a forefinger through the loose skein of yarn wool worn to his lips, slams the door bang behind them, though there’s no one left alive to awake.”
Months old, Ben finally has sex — with his dead mother, Hanna, who is also an apparently living Mary, one of several Marys in the room, watching:
“He arches Himself, His elbows heave and …melt into fingers…pursuing her with the gnashing of teeth – an application of the appearance of mourning, accomplished to titillate and hurt. With His tongue in one thought, His mind in another, He’s sensing suffusion, an oozing of light from within…Glaciate and slow, hard as the earth His head immersed, misted, in the midst of what seems a soft sky dewy and glowing. He squints against that rising shine…dazzly motes, tears and their saline sting, dizzying and foreign, the dusting of sand, real sand…then, as if prepared, He opens His eyes wide inside: and there, inside her, is – Jerusalem …valleyed entire in the genital of her womb… if I forget thee O Jerusalem let my righthand forget its cunting, let my tongue cleave to the Ruth of my mouth…”
Ben’s tongue becomes
“…a relic, to be exhibited…eventually worldwide: paraded around from town to town, wherever pays, whether money or homage…”
A year after that first Xmas, we observe
“the yahrezeit, the Anniversay of Death (A.D., as it’s respectfully, avoidingly, mentioned)…”
JC has an assortedly sordid imagination, but of course nothing he imagines is as nasty as human history. He takes us, along with eager tourists, to see the sights of Whateverwitz. The fictional horror is real.
“It’s easier than ever to enter this city, this station, this stopover; everyone off – and they all have maps still handydandy with Selected Retail Outlets writ large. There are separate marked gates, each reserved for each and every kind of ingress or egress, rest assured; abandon all hope, but not humor…”
The following “humor” is dispersed throughout the last – or better, final chapter, “Punchlines,” as told by the last Holocaust survivor:
“…When they were born, he was born, and when they came for the born, he went…When they were young, he was young, and when they came for the young, he went…When they were, he was, and when they came, he went…When they were dead, he was dead, and when they came for the dead, he went…”
Back to that joke.
Who are The Aristocrats? My answer, (and not necessarily JC’s) in fine Jewish humor tradition: Who isn’t?
The Nazis said, We are! and performed abominations. Dare I mention the abominations performed by, and on, the Chosen People, as told by Him Himself? The goyim believe they are, Muslims, Hindus, who doesn’t? How about the humans, that sapiens Us? Who doesn’t hook worms or poison stinkweed, exterminate those annoying roaches – if only you’re fast enough – and all those tasty cows, chickens, herring, pigs (chas v’ shalom)…I could get killed for this – who doesn’t wish a wife here a brother-in-law there – they’ll kill for this – less than best of luck? Pray for less, much less than best of luck.
Does God have a sordid imagination? Does He tell jokes?
Witz begins with this epigraph:
Was what God said deleted, or did He have nothing to say?
JC has plenty to say, poo poo poo. Witz is an extravaganza: long, difficult, always dark, at times a burden, often confusing, brimming – overflowing — with JC’s evident learning, talent, need to tell. Despite its witty satire reputation and disguise, it is moving, indeed heartwrenching, and memorable. Emes — I’ll never forget.
PR (Post Review)
A note on the cover:
What are those 3 things?
—Jeffra Hays, author of AffectionAires, 2012