In this novel loosely based on deceased literary critic Harold Bloom's encounter with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's father Benzion at Cornell University, the author of Book of Numbers narrates the tale of fictional Jewish historian Ruben Blum's experience at the dawn of the 1960s at Corbin College, where Benzion is interviewing for a professorship and lays waste to Blum's American complacencies.
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.
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.
... 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.