Joshua Cohen Tries to Find a Metaphor for Israel-Palestine
Karan Mahajan in Conversation with the Author of Moving Kings
On a recent evening at the main branch of the New York Public Library, the novelist Joshua Cohen posed with twenty other authors selected for Granta’s “Best of Young American Novelists” honor. He was in a stylishly-rumpled black suit. The photographer arranged everyone but then took a particular liking to Cohen and kept swiveling him around. When the generational portrait came out, Cohen was the only one in profile, like a President trying to sneak out of Mount Rushmore.
Cohen is distinguished from his peers in another way: he has just written so damn much and with such astonishing fluency. The Granta honor—coming at the age of 36, with nine books and scores of articles under his belt—seemed both belated and superfluous; Dwight Garner, in the New York Times, had already called him “a major American writer.”
His new novel Moving Kings should extend this streak. Whereas his previous work, Book of Numbers, was a torrential story that tried to bear-hug the Internet, Moving Kings is a short, precisely structured book about two young Israeli men, discharged from the army, who come to New York to work for a moving company. It’s snappy, heartfelt, vivid, and often note-perfect in its depiction of displacement, aging, and the compromises of being part of an occupying force—whether it’s in an army in Gaza or a gang of evictors in Queens. But as with all of Cohen’s writing, there’s a lot more going on behind the edifice of the story and the Pynchonian fireworks of the prose.
To discuss this and more, Cohen and I met on GChat. I lobbed questions from a ranch-residency in Austin, Texas and Cohen responded from his loft in Manhattan. We both speak fast, so Gchat was an odd, delayed medium. I’d type a question; I’d experience Cohen preparing and editing his answers—and possibly smoking and unclogging toilets (he is the super of his building)—through an impassive “…”. But we made it to the other side with a greater understanding of our own…occupations.
Karan Mahajan: I’m curious if the novel was originally set on two continents, or if it was an Israeli novel that was conquered by America, or if Israel bled into an NYC novel.
Joshua Cohen: What I can remember, what I’ll let myself remember, is wanting to write a novel set on—I don’t know—how many continents are there?
All of them besides Antarctica.
Because the original idea was to write not about Israel, but about Israelis, or about Israelis-in-the-world, and to track an entire squad through an entire year abroad, at the conclusion of their service. So some would go to Asia, some would go to Europe, some would go to Africa, etc. The breadth of that dispersion would’ve been an exaggeration, of course, but only a slight exaggeration.
I was going to base the squad on this one elite squad—a special unit of, let’s say “overachievers,” who, after they finished their stints, “split up,” and scattered all over the globe. A few of them haven’t come back yet. Which used to be the cardinal sin against Israeli society, or against the Zionist ideal. Aliyah (lit. ascent, or moving to Israel), yes. Yerida (lit. descent, or moving from Israel), no no no no no.
KM: The first discharged Israeli kid I met was in one of India’s highest cities, Leh, at an “art cafe.” He had been traveling for months, out of obligation. He was bored out of his mind. It seemed like a compulsory negative freedom.
JC: “Highest” in what sense? In all senses?
The fact that it’s often travel—perpetual, peripatetic travel—is telling. To the best of my knowledge, this tradition of taking a post-army trip came from “backpacking”—from the rugged back-to-the-land aesthetics that seemed to appeal both to the international counterculture and to “sabras” [Jews born in Israel]. This (to my mind) relatively self-loathing approach to R&R appears to have really taken off only in the aftermath of the ’67 war—50 years ago this summer. Israel’s military power was, or was regarded as, supreme. Its economy was strengthening. This was the first time, then, that a relatively large cohort of combat-hardened, Israeli-born Israelis was able—was able to afford—to go abroad. Remember, we’re talking about a country that you can’t really drive out of.
Certainly, though, the more recent trend—the more bougie trend—which I go for in the book, is not to backpack but to move somewhere. To live somewhere. For a time. If not “forever.”
I mean, how many of the over 10,000 young Israelis now in Berlin are going to pack up their lives there and head home? Especially given “the situation.”
By the way, the surname of my novel’s protagonist, Yoav, is “Matzav,” which is Hebrew for “situation.” This is the day-to-day casual-conversational, and even journalistic, euphemism for the Occupation: Ha’Matzav, “The Situation.”
KM: You left America right after college and lived abroad for—what? Six or seven years? Did you channel that estrangement for the Israeli characters in America?
JC: My own gap-year. Which became 6.5 gap years. I left the States at 20, just before what Europe called 11 September—an indication, to me at least, that everything was backward. I was living in another century: running around Poland and Ukraine and Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, reporting on the Jews. Writing for The Jewish Daily Forward. Which, obviously, came out weekly.
It was a lonely time. Very lonely. “SAD!” as The Donald would say. I was a “LOSER!” But I knew what I was doing: I was making my writing better, by making my life worse. I was forcing myself to become a novelist, or to become myself-as-a-novelist. Away from peers. Away from the industry. In the cities (and cesspits) that fostered my ancestors, and so fostered the culture in which I was raised.
I had to write two pieces a month for The Forward—two pieces that paid my rent. At least until the EU rose up and everything got shiny expensive.
2001, in my experience, was the last deliriously drunk year of “postcommunism.” Then, the Eurocrats from Brussels stepped in and ordered everyone to wash their produce and shrinkwrap their cheeses.
Many of my friends at the time were Israeli. They all accused one another of being Mossad. None of them were Mossad. They were just young and broke, drugged-up and horny. One of them claimed he’d been to a strip club in Prague with Mohammed Atta. “Nice guy.”
KM: [laughs] Had you been to Israel already at this point? Or did your knowledge of Israel first come through the lens of this druggy diaspora?
JC: I went to school—through my bar mitzvah—at the Hebrew Academy of Atlantic County. Fun fact: the schools in Atlantic City were so bad, or were regarded by the rich as so bad, that the young Ivanka Trump was sent to kindergarten there. (Maybe that’s where she got her philosemitism?) Anyway. The school would bring us to Israel. And drive us in a van through East Jerusalem. Where we got stoned. But, you know, by stones.
Call it right-wing, call it Zionist, sure. But you’d be missing the point. It was Orthodox. Political imperatives have nothing on religious imperatives. Israel was, is, the eternal homeland of the Jewish people. Not even because of the Holocaust—or millennia of European and Arab oppression—but because of God. Which we were told to spell “G-d” in English, and with abbreviations and acronyms in Hebrew. Every Friday before being sent home for Shabbos we’d have to write a letter—to Gorbachev (“let my people go!”), to Reagan and Bush I (“free Jonathan Pollard!”).
Speaking of home: my parents, like many of their generation of American Jews, have always had deep feelings for, deep ties to, Israel. They’re the children of refugees, and the ideological children of socialist-Zionism. My family’s closest relatives in Israel are kibbutzniks [Israelis who live and work in agricultural and/or industrial collectives]. My parents went over and picked citrus. Now that same kibbutz, which was established on the ruins of a Palestinian village, manufactures ballistic armor.
KM: How did you figure out how to narrow down what is a vast engagement with Israel—in the US, in Europe, in Israel itself—into a pretty precise story? Especially if your first instinct was to follow everyone everywhere?
JC: Isn’t that what you have to do as a novelist? Narrow, winnow? I didn’t want to be Herman Wouk. Or Leon Uris. Or even the great S. Yizhar.
I mean, Israel seems normal to most Israelis, especially to most 21 year old Israelis, in the same way that America seems normal to most Americans—or if not normal then at least not homicidal, suicidal. All of which is to say, I wanted to follow my characters out of Israel and into the foreign, so as to make Israel foreign to them, so as to make them foreign to themselves. I wanted to show how a mind changes. Or how a self becomes. And that required intimacy—tautness—tightness.
Shadowing all this, of course, is the last Gaza War—which Yoav and Uri fought in, and which they fight against talking about, even talking about to themselves. They keep that experience tamped down, and so the novel does too. Until their “occupation” in America—as movers, eviction movers—drags it out of them.
KM: Speaking of the Gaza war, I was impressed with how delicately PTSD is depicted in the novel. I’m thinking of the scene where Yoav’s struck dumb in the truck or his memory of Uri right before he’s about to get blown on the rooftop—pun intended. How did you pick the moments to pull back the combat veil?
JC: PTSD. There might not be a more explosive subject to broach with Israelis—especially with older Israeli men. After all, this is a country in which (most) everyone serves in the military. Not to mention the Intifadas. Not to mention the rockets. Which would suggest that (most) everyone is, or is in danger of being, traumatized.
The true danger, however, comes when a disorder becomes so prevalent that it feels like an order. Ask the Palestinians.
Anyway, to address the sections you cite: to write them, I had to decide on the triggers. Too many books—not to mention too much TV and film—rely on objects, if not on “objective correlatives.” An event, a location, a thing. But, in the accounts I’ve been given by friends and acquaintances, this is rarely if ever the case. The trauma returns whenever, wherever, the sufferer finds himself most vulnerable. Most weak. And for Yoav, this occurs in the midst of family, or women (who confront him with the prospect of sex).
His two moments of profoundest panic, then—his two re-experiences of Gaza—come after he’s left a house he’s moved stuff into, where he’s treated to a family dinner, or a travesty of a family dinner, and when he’s left alone with a woman who’s either trying to seduce him, or insult him—and he doesn’t know which. Even she might not know.
These are his fears: that he’ll never make a break from his family, because he’ll never be loved by anyone else. He was raised to have these fears—not just by his parents, but also by the army. By Judaism and by Israel itself.
And it’s only in America that he comes to suspect that an independent life is being denied him because of this identity. Because he’s a son, and a soldier, and a Jew, and an Israeli. Nothing he chose to be. Just what he was chosen to be. He feels helpless, and so he is helpless. Unguarded against his past.
KM: Does the army freeze the coming-of-age of young Israeli men like Yoav and Uri, so that they have to come of age in alien territories? Like if college was no sex and all orders? Yoav doesn’t even send his own emails inquiring about a job in the US; his mother does it for him.
JC: I do. In Israel, it seems to me, the bonds of family aren’t severed by army, but merely transferred to the army, and so transferred to the state. Sons, and daughters, become constantly reparented. Maturity can only manifest outside of that chain of command—outside of those pitiless borders.
KM: Coming to the American parts of the book: Moving…is a symptom of failure, isn’t it?
JC: A symptom? A sign? I don’t know. I only know what I tried to dramatize: movers showing up to remove the physical trappings of failure. A relationship’s over, and one party’s moving out, or both parties are moving out. Someone’s died, and the children are gathered to mourn, and squabble over possessions. A move’s location is like the scene of a crime. The crime being the failure to just stay put.
KM: Why have you stayed put in NYC for the last decade? I imagine someone with your energies would be constantly drawn away?
JC: Because my family is here. And parents age. And siblings have children.
After strewing my 20s all over Europe, I was depleted. Too many countries, too much writing. It was time to shut down the prodigal son act. “Luftmenschen”—Yiddish for free-floating, intellectual, impractical men, literally “air-men”—tend to become “hot-air-men,” alternately too proud and too resentful, odious.
To me, the more unsettling question is: did I, or would I, ever think about making aliyah?
And the answer is, I think about it all the time. All the days of my life, and all the nights too, except the two weeks per year I spend in Israel.
KM: The book hinges on a metaphor. Why not just write a tweet comparing eviction and occupation?
JC: All of my books are written in reaction to ways of reading. And so the autofiction of Book of Numbers was autofiction parody or satire: I was impatient with the tendency of associating narrators with authors, so I turned it into a plot device.
In Moving Kings, I was reacting to metaphor, or symbol. To allegory, or parable. I’d become impatient with the rhetorical, I guess, with the way it just represents or signifies, but never “is”: it never changes anything “literally.”
To be clear: I didn’t want to write a novel in which the Israel/Palestine conflict was treated as a metaphor for New York City’s eviction crisis (or vice-versa)—I just wanted to write a novel that followed two young men who participated in both, and so who faced the same interpretive dilemma as my readers.
Most of us, whether we know it or not, have read too much: fiction, nonfiction, in every medium, on the page and on the screen. Ours is more literate than any other civilization in human history. We read texts, especially, seeking out their rhetoric, identifying metaphors, symbols, sites of characterization, moments of foreshadowing, as if identifying them were enough. We’ve lost, I think, the pleasures of metonymy. We’ve been educated out of the mysteries. Our metaphors today exist for one reason and one reason only: to be recognized. So that we might recognize ourselves—as intelligent, discerning.
I preferred, then, to make some variety of metaphor that was useful. That would do something. That would serve as an experience.
Not so much a metaphor as a heuristic: a device that would let my characters, and my readers, figure out the politics for themselves.
KM: It creates an interesting discomfort.
JC: It lets the readers know that if they’re unsure, or struggling, the characters are too, and so it equalizes them. Equality creates an interesting discomfort.