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.
... 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.