A Polymath Author With More Ideas Than He Can Handle
Cohen pitches his tent in the second camp. An intensely bookish young man who passed his post-collegiate years in Central and Eastern Europe as a correspondent for The Jewish Daily Forward, Cohen affects a personal style, to judge from photographs — round-rimmed glasses, melancholy gaze — of a Russian Jewish intellectual circa 1910. His spiritual mood, marked by a sardonic cultural pessimism, is suited to match. Cohen is most at home, and “Attention” is at its best, in “Abroad.” The section is heavy on literary criticism, the mode in which he goes deepest, because he goes slowest, and in which he is able to bring his learning, as well as his artistic experience, most fully to bear. There are actual arguments here, often brilliant ones, on the Holocaust writer H. G. Adler; the Czech novelist and raconteur Bohumil Hrabal; the French experimentalist and Oulipian Georges Perec, a collateral descendant of the Yiddish literary giant I. L. Peretz; as well as on Mahler, Shakespeare, Vargas Llosa and others. The interpolated notebook entries, meanwhile, adumbrate a serpentine journey through Poland, Budapest, Belgrade, Croatia, Odessa, Sofia and Bucharest. Cohen is working his way through, and laying claim to, a personal imaginative geography.
A movement back, it is also, as the name of the following section makes clear, a movement in. Cohen’s “Dreamlands” are, most prominently, Jewlands. There are the “Mountain Jews” of Azerbaijan, a closed society of semilegendary origin. There is the Hasidic tradition, with its Zenlike parables and wisdom-working rabbis. There is, at last, that waking dream turned waking nightmare, Israel. It is no coincidence that Cohen’s itinerary in “Abroad” — drawn, evidently, from his years with The Forward, where his editor referred to him as the “Dead Jews correspondent” — takes him through the Ashkenazi heartland. The experience became a basis for “Witz” (2010), Cohen’s most ambitious book, an epic satire of Jewish American Holocaust kitsch. In “Attention,” as in his most recent novel, “Moving Kings” (2017), he takes aim at the Zionist project. If the middle pillars of Jewish American identity are Auschwitz and Israel, sainted victims and glamorized warriors, Cohen gives them both a mighty push. His solipsistic immaturity can sometimes bother me, but his truculent bravery often delights me.
The volume concludes with “Attention! A (Short) History.” The title is a misnomer. Cohen’s real subject here (insofar as there is one, in this caffeinated ramble from Sumer to Google) is not attention, a topic that he never holds for very long, but literacy, the written — or chiseled, or linotyped, but now evanescent — word. Between “Witz” and “Moving Kings” came “Book of Numbers” (2015), an assault on Mount Tech. Boke is book, but only in the past tense. I thought that it was bad enough to love reading, the past, the traditions, the quiet of the solitary mind and to have been born in 1964. Cohen, a member of the generation that had “grown up with books,” as he tells us, “only to exchange them for millennial adulthood and screens,” is a young elegist for an old idea: ideas. He is a man profoundly out of step with the world in which he finds himself. Which is the only respectable place for a writer to be.