JOSHUA COHEN’S VIRTUOSITY is well documented in the literary world. Recently named to Granta’s Best American Novelists, and, more recently, called by James Wood “one of the most prodigious at work in American fiction today. (And he is only thirty-six.),” Cohen has published five novels; four collections of short stories; and numerous essays in Harper’s, The New York Times, and a variety of other places. He studied composition at the Manhattan School of Music and was raised in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he worked at a casino the summer before college. He spent his early 20s in Eastern Europe, based in Berlin, working for the Jewish Daily Forward as a journalist. Cohen knows each voice he writes intimately, and he conducts with electric command.
This mastery serves Cohen’s Moving Kings well; the novel is a fast-paced fantasia of voices — born of the Bronx and Queens — that testifies to Cohen’s keen ear and eye. While the novel is alive with New York City life, it merges historical eras and, at times, cities from across the world. At center, however, Moving Kings is a story about New York City today, about what it’s like to come to the United States from Israel.
The story features the transatlantic move of character David King’s cousin Uri, who comes to work for David’s not-so-honest moving company after his one-year compulsory military service in the Israeli army. Uri’s situation is affecting: he is discharged from the Israeli army after his year of mandatory service as an expert soldier with nearly no skills for adulthood. He is almost utterly unaware what to do with himself; he loses the girl he loved, with whom he had been friends since childhood; and he ends up working as a mover in the Bronx after he comes to the States. He is later joined by Yoav, his squad mate, and New York greets the two with all its grit. The story, however, lives under the surface as much as it does in the characters’ action and language. The story interrogates the experience of coming to a place with which you are supposed to have bonds already.
Recently, I chatted with Cohen over email while he was in Berlin. I sent a few questions early Friday night; Cohen’s responses chimed in, the first around 3:00 a.m. Berlin time, others as it turned to morning there (six hours before it would in my Manhattan apartment). As he responded, I sat wide awake, taking in his wit, imagining him heading out with a cigarette for a coffee, or ending another night spent steeped in literature.
LOUIS ELLIOTT: In a 2010 interview before you published Witz, you said it was “trying […] to be the Last Jewish Novel. A terminal text.” What was the impetus for Moving Kings — a 240-page torrent of brilliant language that is very much about the Jewish experience in New York and abroad — that differs, size aside, from the 840-page Witz?
JOSHUA COHEN: I’m not as much of a prick as I was seven years ago? I mean that answer only half-seriously. The other half is: Moving Kings is far less parochial than Witz. It’s a novel about New Yorkers and … New Jerseyites? New Jerseyans? (The fact that I don’t know which term to use can only mean that I’m truly from Jersey.) It’s a novel about race and immigration. About America “today.” Witz, on the other hand, was about history and the last remnants of (the influence of) European Jewry.
There’s incredible power and intricate musicality to this language: it’s inventive, moving, fresh, and hyperlocal, so steeped in the boroughs of New York City, like Joyce’s picture images in Dubliners. A reader feels the experience of living in the Bronx through a mix of high and low language, in a way that feels not new and invented but natural — not like writing but like speech. How did you find the right tone for David and distinguish the pitch of each character’s voice?
It’s a way of talking with which I grew up. A way of talking of which I’m occasionally guilty myself. Politicians gerrymander districts. Bridge and tunnel folk gerrymander sentences. They also talk with their hands. You have (I have) to find hand-punctuation. Hand-grammar. As for the people in the novel who don’t talk like “my people” — like me — I listen. What Mrs. Geller used to say in fifth grade turned out to be true: “You have to shut your mouth occasionally and listen.”
Was that listening done as you worked, or from when you lived abroad in your 20s?
That listening is never not-done. Meaning, it’s never done — it’s never finished. The ears have no lids: they’re always open.
You have been called prolific and received your share of critical acclaim: did you ever feel yourself falling into superficial tough-guy, mover-type, lower-class rhythms, and if so, was that okay, or did you correct course as you went along?
“Lower-class rhythms” is like some nonsense Henry James would say after visiting the Lower East Side. I refuse to accept that characterization, and I’m tough enough, off the page, to back that up.
Did you ever find yourself straying from the voice you created, and if so, how did you control that voice?
Sure — constantly. That’s why I write “aloud.” I don’t just read my sentences; I speak them. Sometimes (if I’m uncertain), I’ll record myself and listen back as a kind of indoctrination into a cult of one.
How much time do you invest in making sentences, and working on pacing, so that each new section picks up with the action already rolling, already in the character’s perspective? Do you feel okay with phrases that may be less artful but are functional for pace?
It’s always different. With this novel, I wrote an initial draft in two weeks. Then, I spent a year and a half, working pretty much every day, pretty much night to morning, cleaning it up. The sentences, the pacing, what-not.
How much did the novel change over that two-week to two-year process? Did the first draft begin with David at the Hamptons fundraiser?
It changed by becoming the novel. Yes, the opening was always July 4, Hamptons, Republicans. I had all, or most, of the events in mind before drafting. I try and always have my bookends — here, they were opening with July 4 and ending with Christmas.
You’ve said each of your novels reinvents its own language — a reader has to learn to read it. In what ways did you learn about the language and shape of Moving Kings as you wrote it? How big does the challenge of reinvention become as you’re writing?
The reinvention is, or should be, natural. The story should “tell” the storytelling. With Moving Kings, the characters felt most present when being kept in a present, when being kept in constant motion — walking, running, driving. Lots of driving. Frenzied. When trying to communicate their frenzy, if ever I was lost, I always tried to remember my own experience working abroad: how I felt, how I spoke, when I was late for an appointment and had to apologize in a language that wasn’t mine.
Is that why the pacing in Uri’s sections moves slower, because the language Uri uses outside of Israel moves through him slower?
The Uri sections move slower because he is stuck — he is stuck in Israel and spinning his wheels until he gets the opportunity to come to the States. Israel-time, for Uri, is family-time. Dragging.
The book’s movement not only crosses geographical regions but also historical periods — 2015, Holocaust-era Europe, 9/11 America — it dissects and connects two different worlds. How did you approach exploring the historical traditions and the current intersections of each place?
I wanted to understand how a family becomes un-familied (by immigration or exile) and how they become re-familied (through the relative ease, for a certain class, of contemporary international travel). Here we have one family going off to two different countries — Israel and the United States — after the European depredations. Over half a century later, the descendants have become unrecognizable to one another, and yet they share a bond. But of what does this bond consist? Does it consist merely of projection or delusion?
The novel begins with David and traces his movements through the five boroughs; it then departs, and David becomes peripheral to the other characters’ stories. What inspired the decision to organize the plot as a kind of baton, passed on from one character to the next?
I think this is how we experience the world — at least, I do. A few people follow me, or I follow a few people, through the years, but the center of my interest, or the center of my attention, is always shifting. When we are young, we have our parents (David). Then we come into our own and, hopefully, come to know ourselves (Yoav and Uri). Finally, we find ourselves among strangers and have to decide whether, and how, we should know them — life becomes, or should become, about, and/or with, “other people” (Imamu). So one precedent for the form is growing up. I was also thinking, in this novel so concerned with Occupation, of the rhetorical device of occupation — and wondered whether it might be applied at the level of structure.
Does shifting the story from David, making it less about him, cause readers to look at his story — his Bronx story — more carefully?
I don’t think it means anything besides “absence creates a presence.” That said, when the David section gives way to the Yoav and Uri sections, I’m not trying to make you wonder what David’s doing off page — how he’s spending his off time. After all, he’s a fictional character, he doesn’t exist, or he exists only insofar as words do. To spell out my desires: all I want is for you to notice that he is gone, and then maybe, just maybe, I want you to ask why he is — why that was a decision. What would the novel be like if he had hung around? How strained would it have been? How narrow, to be confined in one mind and so to one way of thinking?
The diversity of thinking in this novel is part of its accomplishment. What was it like to move from Book of Numbers, for which you bifurcate a narrator, to this novel, where you offer a range of voices and types of people — is that any more liberating as a creator?
The chief difference, in terms of technique, was class. Writing about rich people (Book of Numbers), you can make them do things — they can, and often want, to do anything, everything. Writing about poor people (Moving Kings) is harder — even though I’m financially much closer to my Israelis and even Imamu than I am to Joshua Cohen, founder of Tetration. With poor people, what do you do? What can they do? It doesn’t matter what they want: they have to work. They spend a lot of time just sitting — sitting anxiously — commuting — in traffic.
What is the role of the 21st-century novel compared to the 20th? Does a novel create its own demands — present new kinks in shape and content — that require the writer to acquire new knowledge?
The role is the same: to be whatever the writer makes it.
How much of art — and synthesis in an artistic creation — is a result of the artist’s choice and how much of that synthesis is already inherent in the thing being created?
Is there anything you cut out of this book you would want back in, and vice versa?
I regret everything. Always. I wish I had written more dialogue in Spanish. More dialogue in Haitian Creole. I wish I had written the “Hebrew” sections not in translation or even transliteration, but in Hebrew.