Joshua Cohen's Witz is a work that is difficult to evaluate, and this is part of its complex virtue. It is hard to know what to make of a novel that simultaneously attempts to place itself in the tradition of the Great American Novel, allows itself prolixity and lyricism in an age of sparse prose and, above all else, demands of its reader more hours of hard concentration than the world generally permits nowadays.
That Cohen, who is not yet 30 years old, has produced a novel (his third, but his first with a major publisher) that creates such confusion in its readers is news in itself. More than 800 pages long, Witz feels like an attempt to turn back time to an earlier period when American authors such as Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon still published hugely long and formally challenging works, rather than spare, minimalist novellas.
Despite the novel's length and complexity, its plot is relatively easy to summarise. At some point in a mildly dystopian near future (or near past: Cohen leaves this ambiguous), the entire Jewish population of the world, apart from firstborn males, suddenly dies out. These surviving firstborns are in turn taken into protective custody (or incarcerated - as they are not allowed to leave) on Ellis Island in New York Harbour, where many of the ancestors of American Jewry gained entry to their adoptive country a century ago.
One of the detainees, Benjamin Israelien, is the 13th child, but first son, of a Jewish family from New Jersey. Yet he is not just one of the detainees. Benjamin was born with a beard and glasses already in place, maturing to manhood in the course of days rather than years and, most importantly, he shed his own foreskin rather than waiting for the mohel to come with the knife, only to regrow it and shed it again daily. Also, Benjamin turns out to be the new Messiah, coming to fulfil scriptural prophesy just as the remainder of the Jewish people disappear from the earthly stage.
Or at least that's what the marketing people would have the goyim think. Benjamin is absorbed into a conspiratorial conjunction of government and shadowy corporate players to sell him as a latter-day celebrity to a population desperate for meaning, or at least for the lifestyle and decorative tchotchkes that would come of living in the reflected light of meaning. Much of the novel is taken up with the digressive picaresque of Benjamin alternately slipping from the grasp of his handlers and being recaptured by them. His peregrinations are imbued with a Pynchonesque zaniness, as he navigates the New Jersey backwoods, negotiates in a convention centre filled with Elvis-style Messiah imitators, wanders the Arizona desert and is abducted by an alien who calls himself Herr Doktor Professor Froid.
Just as much as the plot, it is Cohen's prose style that defines this novel. It is a difficult work to read, apparently never content simply to let something happen when it could be riffed about for paragraphs or even pages on end.
A mensch walks into a talent agent, ouch, a mensch walks into a talent agency, ouch, next time he should use the door. No seriously folks, a mensch walks into the office of a talent agent and sits down and says, no, listen up, I have this fantabulous new act: it's jokes like this, acrobatics, juggling, magic, how I'm doing them just by living. Here and now, that's the act, I'm it, that's the joke, me . . . whaddya think, this talking to Himself, Ben upstaging the stab of backstageing patter.
The halting jokes seem to feature because time needs to be filled and because it's difficult for Cohen not to take up a gag when a gag is there to be taken. Paradise Lost is the way it is because, well, theodicy is difficult. Ulysses prolongs itself into reams of minutiae because the minutiae of daily life are, in a significant sense, its subject matter. But despite his own subject, Cohen's baroque prolongations have nothing to do with metaphysical complexity, nor is he aiming at a second-by-second transcript of what it is like to have a mind, to be alive. Rather, it is the softly desperate shtick of dated Jewish-American comedy that undergirds Cohen's prose.
If figures such as Wallace, Joyce and Pynchon, writers of novels that test their readers' attention span as much as their lexical patience, are among Witz's forebears, there is another group towards which Cohen takes a less than filial stance. It is the merchants of Jewish sentimentality that he is challenging. To replay the Holocaust and the subsequent arrival of the Messiah as a sleazy news event, complete with Vegas floor shows, merchandising tie-ins and talk-show appearances, is to make a towering bonfire of schmaltz.
In the end, it feels as if we get less of the world in Witz and more of its author's compulsively playful but exhausting voice, his shtick. But in the literary atmosphere in which we now live, even to have a voice - let alone one so riskily incessant as Cohen's - seems almost as defiantly untimely as the birth of the Messiah in a gated community in modern-day New Jersey.
Witz: the Story of the Last Jew on Earth
Dalkey Archive Press, 817pp, £14.50
Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in English at University College London