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Issue 222

Joshua Cohen on Truth and Half-Truths in Fiction

The author of ‘The Netanyahus’ speaks with Lincoln Michel about his latest work and how his definition of ‘truth’ changes with every novel

BY Lincoln Michel in Books , Interviews | 21 SEP 21

At 40, Joshua Cohen has already produced a long and varied body of work. His six novels, multiple short story collections and one essay collection span from the experimental modernist epic Witz (2010) to the metafiction internet novel Book of Numbers (2015) and the slimmer campus comedy The Netanyahus, published this year. What unifies his works are their scope of ambition, linguistic dexterity and a kind of formal restlessness. Cohen never seems content with what the novel is and is always working to see what the novel can be.

His newest, The Netanyahus, imagines a job application and campus visit from Zionist historian Benzion Netanyahu – real-life father of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – to a fictional, sleepy college town. Between the hijinks and hilarity, Cohen explores deep questions about Jewish identity, world history and how we construct our own truths.

The Netanyahus, 2021. Courtesy: Fitzcarraldo Editions
Joshua Cohen, The Netanyahus, 2021. Courtesy: Fitzcarraldo Editions

Lincoln Michel I’ve been thinking about the cliché: ‘Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.’ (A Google search finds this attributed variously to Dorothy Allison, Albert Camus, Neil Gaiman and a dozen others.) Perhaps it’s just a phrase to make us liars feel good about inventing stories for a living. But I’m curious how you approach ‘truth-telling’, however you define that, in your novels?

Joshua Cohen My definition of it changes with every novel. If something I’m writing has some kinship with reality, I want to make sure I know what I’m fictionalizing and why; or, to put it another way, I want to know what it is about the truth that prevents me from writing it. Why do I prefer my own version to the ‘real’ version? There’s a certain grand madness in preferring one’s own version to a real or common one: it’s an assertion of self over community that shouldn’t be taken lightly – although it should read as if taken lightly. I tend to dwell on my motives for fictionalizing so much that I wind up incorporating those motives into the writing itself, so that the truth factor – the ambiguousness of the truth, my ambivalence in the face of multiple and even contradictory truths – becomes vital to the plot.

LM It was once common to frame novels as true accounts. Books like Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons [1782] or Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders [1722] would open with a note about how the following was a batch of letters the author had found on the beach or so on. In The Netanyahus, you have a section – at the end rather than at the beginning – telling the reader that what they just read as fiction was inspired by a true anecdote from Harold Bloom. Can you talk about why you included that section?

JC It comes from having started to watch so many shows and films where the opening title credits will then say: ‘Based on a True Story’. The moment I see that, I turn the thing off. Why tell me that? What good does it do? It makes me want to read some history or a biography of the events or person being portrayed, instead of watching the portrayal – rather, it makes me feel as if I have to know the truth in order to judge the fiction, and that I won’t actually be able to understand the fiction without understanding the reality that it invokes, revises, etc. To my mind, proclaiming or admitting ‘Based on a True Story’ is a variety of sabotage, and frankly reeks of insecurity and lawyers – either the person making the thing didn’t think their art could stand on its own, or the lawyers advising the person making the thing said: be careful, we paid a lot for this IP and no one here wants to get sued. When I was writing The Netanyahus, all of this was in my head, and one of my earliest decisions was just to flip it: I decided to put the thing that annoys me when it’s at the front at the back instead and see what it does there, see how it works. I think I had the sense that, if used oppositely, it might function oppositely, not as a move that makes illusion subservient to reality but as a move that makes reality subservient to illusion, which – as anyone who has ever seriously pondered mortality can tell you – is the proper order, the proper hierarchy.

Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, 2007. Courtesy: Fugue State Press
Joshua Cohen, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, 2007. Courtesy: Fugue State Press

LM The Netanyahus was published right as Benjamin Netanyahu was being ousted from office after several attempts and multiple deadlocked elections. What was it like publishing a book about the Netanyahu family as its most famous figure was all over the news?

JC Harrowing, but mostly because of the war: the rockets, the deaths, Gaza. Selling copies of my book as the body count mounts – that’s not a happy prospect. And then being asked in much dumber interviews than this one to discuss my biography of Netanyahu; being asked to explain, to frame, to contextualize, to prophesize and prognosticate as if I were some think-tanker, or tank commander, with a deep understanding of the saliencies and the facts on the ground.

LM In a 2021 interview with The Paris Review, you said: ‘I couldn’t write a book that doesn’t acknowledge the role of books in the world today.’ Why does that question inform (or haunt?) your work? Has the role of books changed since you published your first in 2007?

JC I want to know why I’m making what I’m making, and what it might mean to others who live differently, or in different yet simultaneous historical eras. In that interview, I was speaking about the old-fashionedness of writing, or about the conscious antiquarianism of being a writer nowadays, which is something akin to being a blacksmith, or a Ren Faire re-enactor blacksmith. Certainly, a lot of the people who still read books tend to regard novels as walled gardens: neat, orderly, comfortable and comforting places to retreat to, in desperate flight from the mess outside, the digital mess, the political mess, the bad-faith bad art of the corrupted popular, which has failed them and us. And, to a degree, I feel sympathy with this desire: why shouldn’t books be something of a haven for those who can’t take the screen products constantly being hurled at us? Why shouldn’t books be a refuge for minds that crave peace? The problem with this prescription is that it’s a prescription: it tells writers how to write, and the books that result, the books that are created to fulfil this desire, seem to me to be not just out of time and out of touch, but too polite and well-behaved. They soothe and confirm; they calm and justify; they do anything but challenge. That’s how books have changed, since I started writing them: they became tedious redoubts for the pious certainties of a besieged, over-educated and underemployed intellectual class dissatisfied with – and powerless to change – the mindless, capital-driven popular.

Book of Numbers, 2015. Courtesy: Penguin Random House
Joshua Cohen, Book of Numbers, 2015. Courtesy: Penguin Random House

LM The Netanyahus isn’t the first time your work has played on the border of fiction and nonfiction, real life and fantasy. Book of Numbers [2015], for example, has a character who is a novelist named Joshua Cohen. Is this an area you’re particularly drawn to in your work?

JC If by this ‘area’ you mean the grey areas – the swampy zones where truths and half-truths and one-and-a-half-truths all congregate and pullulate, the god-round overlap in the universal Venn diagram between ‘this has happened’ and ‘this can happen’ – then yes, this is where my interest lies. Rather, this is where I live, where we all live, nowadays, amid competing claims of veracity, denials of the very existence of veracity, and the usage-confusion of veracity and voracity

This article first appeared in frieze issue 201 with the headline ‘A Certain Grand Madness’

Main image: Joshua Cohen at his home in Brooklyn, 2015. Courtesy and photograph: Danny Ghitis/The New York Times

Lincoln Michel is the author of the short story collection Upright Beasts (2015) and the novel The Body Scout (2021). He lives in New York, USA.