The first obligation, when turning to the work of the electrifying American writer Joshua Cohen, is to stress that he clearly is a genius. In his essays (Attention!) and stories (Four New Messages), and in novels such as Witz, Book of Numbers, Moving Kings and now The Netanyahus – a comic historical fantasia – a dizzying range of bookish learning and worldly knowhow is given rich, resourceful expression. Cohen, who turned 40 last September, has prompted all the desirable M-words (master, magus, major) as well as comparisons to Thomas Pynchon (justified) and David Foster Wallace (slightly lazy). While James Wood settles for calling him one of the most prodigious stylists at work in the US today, Nicole Krauss has flatly declared that nobody writing in English is more gifted... Yet the novel may also help to explain why Cohen doesn’t possess a fame equal to his talent. The ebullience and hyper-fertility that accounts for his work’s rare pleasures can produce an engulfing excess. This is a brisk, impudent, utterly immersive novel that also wants to answer questions about Jews and history (the past serving as a distraction from the pain of present realities), Jews and identity politics (and the amnesia of the current incarnation), Zionism and the US (and the conflicting forms of Jewish mutation after the Holocaust), the distinction between Rhenish and Russian immigrants, and the paradoxes of the diaspora.
Cohen writes with humour and wit — Blum is “flagrant with aftershave”; a colleague is described as “a sour-breathed harbinger of the perils of meritocracy” — but comedy is a way of seeing things, as well as describing them. When events take a late, serious turn, Cohen never deviates from the comic mode, deliberately leaving the reader questioning whether they should be finding this funny. In an epilogue that feels like a wry provocation, Cohen steps out from behind the curtain to provide the novel’s key: Blum is Harold Bloom, Benzion Netanyahu did teach in America, and as for the final scene — all Cohen can say is that it did happen.