Writing a Book Like Coney Island

Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel,Witz, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.

So it’s summer again—or almost. The calendar only belatedly confirms what the bare arms and legs knew weeks earlier. But I’m writing this inside—I’ve been inside too much lately.

I live in southern Brooklyn, 11235—Brighton Beach, on a beach block—and

from my window can glimpse about an inch, an inch and a half, of brackish water. I say “water” because it’s not ocean, it’s the bay. Another misconception? People come to the beach, spread their blankets, point to the land just across from them, rising from the murk of Lower Bay, and say, “Look at Staten Island.”

They’re looking at New Jersey.

People. Summers in the Seagate-Coney Island-Brighton Beach-Manhattan Beach nexus mean crowds. Half of the city making its Q Train way to my beach come Saturday AM. Bringing their foods, their beers, and so their trash. Their ethnic radio: bulletins in Russian, Turkish, Hindi, Urdu. Also bulletins in English. And the many jellyfish they leave behind—the used condoms in every color and design (ribbed jellyfish; tickler jellyfish; that most beautiful but tacky species of condom that glows in the dark, which brings to mind a favorite term from high school biology, “bioluminescence”).

Summer serves even to relocalize the locals: by June characters who’d spent September through May shut-in, emerge, taking a brief vacation from their televisions and neuroses.

As for me, I turn thirty in September. That was a difficult sentence to write. I still think of summers as breaks from school: as recess. I’m thinking already, “I better not be assigned a class with Mrs. Falk” (but Mrs. Falk must be retired by now; hopefully her straight blonde wig’s retired, too).

My novel, Witz, was published in May. It is my third novel—after 
Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto
, and 
A Heaven of Others
—by far my longest, most ambitious. But it’s only now that the work’s begun—the work of talking about it, of writing about it; it’s a job for a shadchan (a matchmaker), or a masochist. I’m going to write two more of these ruminations for you—about literature and incipient summer, about the lives of both in Brooklyn South.

Witz is the story of the Last Jew in the World. And, given its terminal theme, it attempts to be something of a terminal text: a Jewish book that, if it doesn’t end all Jewish books, at least ends certain recent trends of Jewish bookery. It

says dayeinu—“enough”—to kitsch, to Holocaust revisionism, to Europe.

When I think about what inspired this book, what made this book—what this book both springs from and reacts to—I think of every Jewish book ever written: Abravanel’s to Zweig’s. But I also think of the Brooklyn beach. Witz is 800 pages long, long on words in a dozen languages. Reading to the end is like riding the subway to Coney; the terminus, the end of the line—you have to have patience; understand that the ride becomes the destination. Come over the bridge—Liberty and Ellis Island to your right—pass under that half of Brooklyn that’s only Manhattan’s dimmer reflection, then surface for the midlands of Midwood, the oxidized service yards and factory ruins. Soon the wind salted by waves, the jingling of games like the creaks of bolts on an unserviced amusement, the swirling lights that signify as half fun, half siren…. I want Witz to compel in that way, to demand that commitment—to attract people from citified comforts to a place, a timeplace, whose sentimentality contains its own criticism: Because it’s forgotten for Manhattan’s winter, there is crime down here, and grime, and there are lunatics. I wanted to write a book that, being seclused, turned readers—visitors—into archaeologists and hedonists, kids. I wanted to write a book that was like Coney Island….

Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel, Witz, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series. Visit his official website here.

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