... a generational campus novel, an unyielding academic lecture, a rigorous meditation on Jewish identity, an exhaustive meditation on Jewish-American identity, a polemic on Zionism, a history lesson. It is an infuriating, frustrating, pretentious piece of work — and also absorbing, delightful, hilarious, breathtaking and the best and most relevant novel I’ve read in what feels like forever ... the chaos is just the ingenious layer on top of what this book also is, which is a brilliant examination of the Jew’s role in American society, always a tense place ... presents, in addition to a dynamic and compelling story, a thorough history of the quarrels of Zionism at its founding and an account of the unimaginable thing that happened when finally the Jews had a national homeland and a place to go, when, according to the Netanyahu in this book, Jews stopped being a mythological people who wandered the earth, who were chased around the earth, and began being a people who could record their own history ... This seems heavy, yes. And it is! But I promise that the book is both readable and, in spots, I absolutely screamed with laughter. I hesitate to say it’s accessible, only because of the amount of unnecessarily blue-chip words that appear throughout ... I lost some of the rhythm in a Sheol of internet vocabulary searches, though, to be clear, I do not cavil at these words, lest my own lesser vocabulary stick out like a carbuncle ... It was good to be able to hold all the dimensions of all the ways a Jew can be in this country and in the diaspora in my hands.
Cohen has performed a literary miracle of sorts, transforming the shadowy, dour figure of Benzion Netanyahu into the protagonist of an uproariously funny book. In its skewering of the small-mindedness of academic culture, The Netanyahus conjures up the hilarity of David Lodge, and in its piercing gaze and over-the-top, transgressive moves, it evokes the late Philip Roth, who ripped open the soul of the American Jewish parvenu—and that figure’s grinding quest for respectability—like no one else ... It is striking how much Cohen gets right about Netanyahu’s scholarship, the historiographical traditions against which he pushed, and the milieux in which he was formed, particularly the distinctive academic culture of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem ... Cohen’s narrator captures something essential about the actual Netanyahu ... Cohen lays out the twists and consequences of Netanyahu’s argument with exceptional acuity. But he is equally exceptional in tacking back to the comic. The truly unexpected climax to the book comes in the madcap scene near the end when the Blums and Netanyahus return home to discover a naked Jonathan Netanyahu dashing from the room of the Blum’s deflowered naked daughter, Judy.
The Netanyahus is Cohen’s sixth novel, his most conventional and his best to date. It is a tour de force: compact, laugh-out-loud funny, the best new novel I’ve read this year ... Among its other merits, then, The Netanyahus can claim the distinction of being probably the funniest novel ever written about contending historiographies ... Cohen writes with humour and wit...but comedy is a way of seeing things, as well as describing them ... Cohen’s lesson, in this determinedly comic novel, is that history happens as farce and tragedy simultaneously; the side you see depends, in part, on where you happen to be standing.
Cohen is at his best with chaotic, everyone-shouting-at-once set pieces ... The Netanyahus, like Cohen’s previous novels, is driven by the momentum of its prose. It has a freewheeling, all-consuming style which frequently turns up unexpected delights. There are nicely odd verbs ... There are vivid similes ... Slowing things down are a series of lectures on Zionism. Dour and rambling, they interrupt the narrative, much as Netanyahu darkens the door of Blum. This is intentionally wearisome, but wearisome nonetheless. Fortunately, this is a surprising novel, full of quirks and explosive moments, and, all in all, Dr Netanyahu proves a welcome guest.
Cohen has found a semifictional historical tapestry adequate to his vast imagination. He has written one of the only genuinely funny novels of political satire to be published since Donald Trump was elected president. Best of all, by invoking archetypes of claustrophobia—the liberal arts college, sexual rebellion, in-laws, stale dinners, creaking boards, cramped reading spaces, sneezes, twitches, farts—Cohen is working in new territory for the Netanyahus, successfully cutting the dynasty down to size while bringing its delusions of grandeur into relief ... In glimpses of Netanyahu family life that come into view two-thirds of the way through the book, Cohen shows that the best literary twists on political characters rest on inventing entirely new worlds for their readers, allowing them to see familiar brokers of the established order in entirely unfamiliar contexts.
The Netanyahus demonstrates what can still be done within the relatively conventional yet capacious parameters of literary fiction. It veers from mid-century comedy of manners to campus caper by way of social, political and religious satire. Bravura displays—such as the hilarious scene where Edith’s mother harangues Ruben while her husband unburdens himself, most indiscreetly, in the adjoining toilet—are legion. Dialogue is deftly handled throughout: the banter between Ruben and Edith, in particular, is pitch perfect. Cohen’s style—inventive but elegantly understated—is a class act that few of his contemporaries can follow. All in all, this is a veritable triumph.
Mr. Cohen has fictionalized the episode to brilliant effect, producing a novel that is in part a seriocomic portrayal of postwar American domesticity, in part an ideological origin story, and most of all a parable dramatizing the intra-tribal disputes that divided Jews in the wake of the Holocaust ... Mr. Cohen proves himself not just America’s most perceptive and imaginative Jewish novelist, but one of its best novelists full stop.
... a campus novel, as well as a send-up of the campus novel, wryly irreverent like Kingsley Amis, narrated by an old man, yet written by a young man (Cohen is 41), akin to what Anthony Burgess did in his trenchant opus Earthly Powers. It's Rothian in its rampant Jewishness, Bellow-like in its braggadaccio diatribes ... After novels of more obvious ambition, this one seems, at least by comparison to earlier, odder works, ironic in its ostensible simplicity, and yet the sensibilities are earnest, empathetic ... told in a smart but colloquial voice...replete with linguistic bravado ... To read Cohen is, as Nietszche said, to hear with a third ear, that ontological orifice that allows us to hear and speak in a voice that is ours.
Cohen evokes the bucolic campus world of this era with a fluent satiric touch, playing off trademark details...in a tone that shifts between semi-realist and wild slapstick. The dialogue is snappy and interspersed with snicker-ready, drum-roll-to-cymbal one-liners. Superficially, the story is often a sort of breezy hoot. But grave questions and menacing true-life figures lurk about the novel from its inception to the end ... The domestic scenes are intermittently funny and occasionally cruel, but often also feel facile—slick, period-piece rehearsals of mid-twentieth century American Jewish foibles ... From the moment their half-wrecked car pulls up, blocking the Blums’ driveway, all five Netanyahus display a boorish grab-bag of ugly Jewish stereotypes...such a cheap cartoon of the demonic tribe that everything about their characters is at once homogenized and trivialized ... Cohen is good at rendering the force of Netanyahu’s rhetoric about the eternal historical agon in which he envisions himself and his people as lead actors. Who could disagree that this approach is lethally deluded? But as a reflection on the political morass of contemporary Zion I’m not sure how far it takes us. For the father and the son are distinct in crucial ways, even if both men are reprehensible.
... some madcap Rothian scene-making with a greater and uncomfortable plumbing of what it means, all these years later, to be Jewish in America ... Cohen’s writing carries us through, even when the scenes, like generational battles at the dinner table, seem well-worn ... an ideas novel. There is a plot that tugs us onward, though it’s a bit beside the point ... What Cohen tracks, through speeches and letters, is how a fringe ideology came to define, almost entirely, what...Zionism means in the twenty-first century.
Joshua Cohen is such an accomplished writer it’s surprising he isn’t a better known one ... Cohen’s new book...continues the turn to allegorical realism that he took in his last novel ... It is also among his best: a fastidious and very funny book that is one of the most purely pleasurable works of fiction I’ve read in ages ... though Blum is no straight analogue of [Harold] Bloom, Cohen seems to have stuck pretty closely to the rest of the facts. In doing so he raises questions about the workings of history on individual lives.
There is some irony in an author fictionalizing much about those he actually knows quite well... while sticking much closer to the facts...about a character he never met (and also sticking to his actual name, Ben-Zion); it's also a bit of a distraction: among the annoyances of such semi-life based fiction is that there's a constant question hovering alongside the text, the reader wondering all along what's (supposed to be) real and what isn't. If this half-fact foundation is and remains awkward, the rest of the novel isn't. Cohen easily assumes the voice of his narrator ... The discussions and examples of Jewish identity—in that present-day as well as historically—are fascinating and quite well-integrated into the story. The letters and lectures are digressions of sorts, but engaging and thought-provoking rather than dry-academic—even if at least aspects of the subject-matter might seem esoteric to many readers. Beyond that, Cohen weaves back and forth and together very well, his subject matter addressed in so many different ways and from so many angles. Far from being a theoretical novel, too, the action itself—from the descriptions of academic life (at a not exactly first-rate institution), family life, and then the take-no-prisoners whirlwind that are the Netanyahus—is exceptionally well presented and described. The Netanyahus is also very much a comic novel ... It's a neat trick Cohen pulls off here, The Netanyahus [is] in many ways disarmingly light, even lighthearted, and much about the novel reässuringly conventional, down to how Cohen uses the wintery conditions when the Netanyahus are visiting, while also being so many-faceted in addressing the question of Jewish identity ... an accomplished work of fiction, a solid novel, in every respect—and a lot of good fun, too.
As a narrator, Blum has many charms, chief among them the history-making knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time ... Gone is the twitchy swagger of the multiple Joshua Cohens who populated Book of Numbers, replaced here with the bourgeois aw-shucks of a middle-aged dad who struggles to light a fire, forever forgetting to open the flue. It would be hard to overstate the comedy this recalibration of Cohen’s skills achieves ... The true trick of The Netanyahus is that it can be read on two levels, romp or polemic, and not at once—it’s a bit of a duck-rabbit, in the end, flipping between the binary of the story of the founding of a nation and the story of the founding of a family ... the novel is a lark; taken as a metafictional study of national identity and hegemony, it does most of what Cohen has always done well—wordplay, polemics, puns, the politics of assimilation, Jewishness, innovation in the novel as form—to harrowing effect.
... a dizzying range of bookish learning and worldly knowhow is given rich, resourceful expression ... It’s a source of slight disappointment that Cohen didn’t stick closer to the record. It would have been fascinating to see a writer of his erudition explain why a Jew from the Bronx, raised speaking Yiddish, devoted his considerable talent and even greater energy to the promotion of poetry and plays by English Protestants ... The bulk of the novel is given to Blum’s wonderfully pedantic account of his Corbindale existence and the visit paid in January 1960 by the Netanyahu family ... With its tight time frame, loopy narrator, portrait of Jewish-American life against a semi-rural backdrop, and moments of cruel academic satire, The Netanyahus reads like an attempt, as delightful as it sounds, to cross-breed Roth’s The Ghost Writer and Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Yet the novel may also help to explain why Cohen doesn’t possess a fame equal to his talent. The ebullience and hyper-fertility that accounts for his work’s rare pleasures can produce an engulfing excess. This is a brisk, impudent, utterly immersive novel that also wants to answer questions about Jews and history (the past serving as a distraction from the pain of present realities), Jews and identity politics (and the amnesia of the current incarnation), Zionism and the US (and the conflicting forms of Jewish mutation after the Holocaust), the distinction between Rhenish and Russian immigrants, and the paradoxes of the diaspora ... Even with Blum as an affable mediating force, I didn’t understand every current that the visit stirred up.
It’s a delightful mix—part campus novel, part history of Zionism—crackling with humour, intelligence and moments when the dark history of the Jews explodes into the story ... the best parts of the novel are the big set-piece events when the grandparents come for dinner, Edith’s parents for Rosh Hashanah and Ruben’s parents for Thanksgiving. Picture both sets of parents from The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and make them ten times more argumentative and difficult and you get the picture ... as good as anything Cohen has written. Clever, funny, dark, deeply moving, full of references to everyone from Nabokov and the Marx Brothers to Jabotinsky and the late Harold Bloom, The Netanyahus is a joy to read.
Repurposing the familiar tropes of this canon is essential to Cohen’s literary project ... The homage to the Jewish American canon dictates the novel’s entire form, turning The Netanyahus into a midcentury pastiche—a Jewish campus novel animated by Rothian hijinks and brief bursts of Bellowish lyricism ... If Jewish narrative, up to and including the Bible itself, has served its function, what then to make of the Jewish novel? By staging the conflict between American and Israeli Jewishness on these terms, Cohen implicitly sets himself the task of demonstrating the form’s enduring value. Diasporic fiction, he suggests, can contest the Zionist monopoly on the meaning of Jewishness. The project is admirable for its attempt to reckon earnestly with both the legacy of American Jewish literature and the material meaning of Jewishness today, but it’s also too beholden to fixed archetypes to respond imaginatively to the experience of contemporary Jewish life. Rather than bringing forth a new brightness from a broken tradition, his attempt to render the 20th-century Jewish American novel newly relevant through an ironic repurposing of exhausted tropes only carries us back into that lineage’s most familiar features. The result is a novel that understands itself as live and potent, but is really anemic, even undead ... the success of the project requires a real demonstration of the continued vitality of the exilic Jewish imagination. Instead, The Netanyahus shows how, even with a glaze of self-consciousness and a thoroughgoing sense of irony, the exploitation of a sapped form can cut off avenues of new thinking, returning us to tired modes ... The Netanyahus' provocative premise sets it up to be such a novel, but its hubristic conclusion makes clear why Cohen was never up to the task ... The self-parodying prose nearly defies credulity—and in fact, the postscript’s veracity is suspect ... If Cohen has so far given us only variously interesting failures, it may be because he finds himself continually compelled to try to build a new Temple, rather than dwell in the ruins.
... [a] stinging comedy ... In lieu of plot, Cohen makes hay of the culture clash between the Blums and the Netanyahus ... Uncomfortable exchanges abound on campus after the boozy aftermath of one of Netanyahu’s lectures ... Cohen’s writing is vibrant even when ruminating on esoteric details on Jewish identity theories ... This blistering portrait is great fun.