“I’m beginning to feel,” gripes Oscar Levant in 1951’s An American in Paris, “like the world’s oldest child prodigy.” One might guess that Joshua Cohen, whose literary star has been rising for the past decade, has felt the same way. His previous efforts—2010’s gargantuan Witz and 2015’s Book of Numbers in particular—have earned exuberant praise, but rarely without qualification: Cohen stuns, he dazzles, he defies; he also, we are invariably reminded, bores, grates, and confounds. His talent, quoth consensus, is a youthful one, bursting with ambition and excess. What he’s had above all—even inching towards forty—is promise.
His latest offering, however, should change that assessment. Moving Kings is without a doubt his most mature and consistent work to date. While familiarly pyrotechnic—Cohen’s balls-out neologisms and Yiddish-inspired compoundnouns abound—the novel packs a significantly lighter dose of the high-PoMo decadence and revenge-of-the-nerds sadism that have made his past prose so indigestible. We’re spared, for instance, anything like Book of Numbers’ protracted, hypertechnical manuscript-within-a-book, or the Wake-y lexical ictus that infects so much of Witz. The result is predictably excellent: Moving Kings is a streamlined, entertaining, and timely meditation on the instability of identity. While remaining on thematic home-turf (big surprise: it’s about Jews), Cohen also tacks fruitfully toward the political, namely the Israeli occupation of Palestine, as well as oppression in a more abstract sense.
Functionally, the novel might be described as an exercise in parallax. Through three protagonists, Cohen exposes the profoundly different ways in which individuals can relate to a culture they supposedly share. For David, an aging Rothian prototype, Jewishness is a chip on his shoulder: despite owning a successful moving and storage business, he feels defined by his failure to penetrate wealthier, WASPier social echelons—an embarrassment which fuels a reactive Zionism. For Yoav, his Israeli cousin who comes to work for him after completing his compulsory IDF service, Jewishness is a nuisance, something he’d rather not think about. For Uri, Yoav’s depressive squadmate who eventually joins him in New York, it’s an opaque obligation, a destiny to fulfill. As a Rabbi counsels him: “You can’t stop being a soldier, just like you can’t stop being a Jew.”
Which, in a way, turns out to be true: working for David, whose clients include the New York-based billionaire developer Fraunces Bower, eviction and dispossession remain the fundamentals of Yoav and Uri’s occupation. Geographic and cultural distance notwithstanding, Cohen suggests, there’s a sense in which the poorer quadrants of Brooklyn or the Bronx may as well be Gaza: when the powerful come knocking, the powerless must go. “Settlement,” “development”—pick your euphemism.
Nor does he shy from rendering this violence in its tragic particularity: at key moments, he supplements the perspectives of his protagonists with those of the dispossessed themselves. A note, for instance, in which a disabled woman begs her evictors to return her late husband’s watch, forms a wrenching interlude between the first two sections. “I know that I did not make mortgage and that everything must be taken from Me, I know that I deserve this and that I have brought this on Myself, but I ask You for Mercy on the Watch… not worth a chirp except to Me, with a family value.” A portion of the final chapter traces the life of Avery Luter, a.k.a. Imamu Nabi, a black veteran broken by years of debt and discrimination, whose own eviction forms the novel’s climax.
The play between fission, in the form of Cohen’s deconstructive take on Jewish identity, and fusion, in his polemic equation of gentrification with occupation, grants Moving Kings a complexity that saves it from heavy-handedness. If anything, it flirts with political pessimism: parallels which all but sing themselves to the reader are lost entirely on its characters, none of whom manage to transcend their limited, damaged perspectives. As the months march past, David remains basically bitter, Yoav basically lost, and Uri basically overwhelmed. Terrible things are happening—but who can help? The dice are loaded; pathologies play themselves out.
What this hopelessness underscores, however, are the ways in which “oppressors” are often themselves oppressed. “Trauma” is a word conspicuous for its absence: when Yoav succumbs to a warzone flashback after a car accident, or Uri falls into an irrational rage, we are reminded not only of the psychological toll of their involvement, but that they had little say in the matter. As Yoav despairingly puts it: “We’ve always just been forced to become who we are and still everyone has an opinion about it, treating us like we chose this.” Even David, despite his age and relative success, seems more victim than villain. Scenes of him vacationing in Mexico near the novel’s close are among the most harrowing: vodka-filled Poland Springs, barfing carnitas in the hotel shower.
And yet there are villains. The Fraunces Bowers: firm-handshake gala-goers with executive acronyms, the “waspiest machers,” purchasing summer homes and schmoozing at fundraisers. The settlers: “Hasidic rabbinic or rabbiesque,” speeding in Benzes through Gaza, screaming at soldiers for making them late. We barely glimpse such figures, but that’s precisely the point: in outsourcing violence, they have purchased the luxury of never experiencing it—not even as perpetrators. Meanwhile, the entire drama of oppression and resistance goes on without them. Forget identity, Cohen seems to be saying. It’s about power.