Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Third note on _Witz_

3. Magical realism? Kinda sorta, maybe. Benjamin is born bearded, wearing glasses. The first catastrophic dying-off of the Jews occurs on the eve of the day his bris would have been celebrated, so he is uncircumcised – except that his foreskin magically circumcises itself, then grows back, removes itself again, and so on. A pack of feral dogs out of some mittel-european forest almost hunts him down as he is being returned from Florida to New Jersey. That Benjamin is set up in a simulacrum of his family home with thirteen shiksas playing the parts of his mother and sisters has a kind of fantastic quality. A certain hyperbole prevails throughout – but in this respect the book seems not at all like deadpan accounts of the incredible we get in Garcia Marquez, hence not all that magical-realist.

Is it a Jewish magical realism, then? Hmm. Jonathan Safran Foer (ptoo, ptoo, ptoo) seemed to be attempting something of the sort in the shtetl chapters of Everything Is Illuminated; Witz never sounds like that (like I. B. Singer crippled by an MFA). But here is Cohen describing a contagious outbreak of farting that occurs in the Great Hall on Ellis Island, which has temporarily become a dorm for Jewish first-born sons:

He grunts, then as if to say hello, to introduce himself he farts, a poof, a toot, is answered by that mensch neighboring, a response given upon permission, shameless, with another fart, this rip huge, Rrrrrrrip! an enormous sortie wet and thick, which tears a hole right out of his uniform pajamas, this sound echoed six beds down then maybe two over with another, is duetted with, a ffrrip, and yet another, pow, pow, -- and – pow from opposite sides of the barracks, a barrage of miniexplosions, from cot to cot echoing against the corroded collapsing wet walls, stacked booms rocking the lower bunks, bucking the uppers, bombs from the rafters to incise there their own dark graffiti, signing a scatology’s name. (155-56)

There are two more even longer sentences on this festival of flatulence. Not magical realism, exactly, but an embrace of fabulism, perhaps? A willingness to go over the top, road of excess, palace of wisdom, etc.? Its ancestor seems not so much Garcia Marquez as Philip Roth in his especially manic mid-70s phase, the Roth of Our Gang and The Great American Novel, and, later, my favorite bits of Operation Shylock.

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