Moving Kings. Joshua Cohen.

Cohen, Joshua. Moving Kings. Random House, New York, 2017. F;8/17.

I ran across Cohen for the first time reading the New Yorker review of this novel. Critic James Wood called him a prodigious stylist, and concluded “This is a book of brilliant sentences, brilliant paragraphs, brilliant chapters. Here things flare singly, a succession of lighted matches, and do not cast a more general illumination.” Great style, I guess he’s sayong, without quite enough coherence. But Wood hedges: maybe Cohen is inventing or trying to invent something completely new.

David King is a successful home mover in New York, but makes most of his money from selling stored things people fail to claim or keep up with payments on. David is a brash sleazy entrepreneur, glaringly alienated from wife and daughter, trying unsucessfully to behave himself in income-comparable social situations.

He sets up a New York apartment for his distant younger relative Yaov, just out of military service in Israel, who is joined by his army buddy Uri, both working for David illegally. Another main character is a young black man, Avery Luter, who becomes a Black Muslim and renames himself Imamu Nabi. The two young recent army pals are part of a crew that trashes and empties Nabi’s dilapidated house, sensing a déjà vu to their recent army activities in Palestine. So Judaism, New York American and Israeli style, heats up a stew of black alienation, Arab versus Jew, military and business wreckling home life, and some brilliant glimpses of interpersonal strife and misunderstanding. In the end the stew boils over.

Cohen’s writing is gorgeous and original. An addicted girl’s brain “had come to this: tomato methadone soup.” Neologisms abound. James Wood singles out rush-hour cars seeping like spread tar and hardening into traffic, and the sun sowing someone a migraine. Although this novelist is of a different generation I’m reminded of Banville’s The Infinities, which I compared to a museum after a tornado. Here it’s less scattered old artifacts than randomly exploding fireworks that don’t quite orchestrate into a crescendo.

The most moving passage for me was a conflicted conversation between young Yaov and his friend Uri. The boys are ripping apart an old home and removing its contents, having done similar things for a couple of years in the Army. Yaov‘s complaint is about his friend and friendship in general, but also about something fundamental in Yaov’s mental life and mental life conducted in a social world, in general:

Like I said, Uri, I don’t have to tell you anything, but one last time, I will. One last. I’m just trying to have a thought. A thought that the moment I have it my family or Sami or Eli or Natan or you aren’t popping out of a mousehole to take it away from me.

What’s that all about? Is the boy just pissed off at interruptions? Maybe, but I read it as a struggle for personal coherence. I have a preoccupation with trying to have an experience (“a thought”) that is original and sustained: mine for more than a few moments. Somehow accomplishing that is not easy. It’s not a solution, as Yaov seems to think, to get angry and blame somebody else because you can’t live in and with yourself for any significant amount of time. It reminds me by analogy of the problem Adam Gordon, Ben Lerner’s protagonist in Leaving the Atocha Station, had. You can either have an experience or you can record it, not both. But some people (like me) chronically escape living by a form of “recording”, which is just an exercise in internal narcissism. “Watching myself”, an old friend of mine used to call it. Anyway that’s my take on what Cohen was getting at through Yaov.

Reaching even a bit further, including the dynamic of trying to balance experience and its artistic representation with a fictional character who can’t sustain a “thought”, Cohen may be commenting on his own work. In trying to understand him I found myself reflecting on what other fiction writer he is like, if he’s not the original James Wood was imagining. He’s too coy to be compared to previous-generation Jewish macho men like Roth, Bellow, and Richler. I don’t find the affecting undertow of self-criticism in his work that attracts me to David Foster Wallace (although Wood makes that comparison). I think TC Boyle would be as close as I can come to a comparator. There’s literary pyrotechnics, a lovely snide irony that leaves phonies and vacuous big shots dead by the roadside, and (except for World’s End) a reach so far exceeding a grasp. Cohen with his wonderful talent may be struggling with that.

I’m not inclined to take on his much longer Book of Numbers. Critical comment suggests it may be more, but a lot more, of the same thing. 7.9/9.2.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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