At the Blums’—A review of 'The Netanyahus' by Joshua Cohen
Like many, I was introduced to Harold Bloom through his commentary on writers I admired. I vehemently disagreed with his terming of John Irving's The World According to Garp (1978) as a "period piece"—living now in an age of renewed trans-phobia and the American pushback against abortion, he could not have been more wrong there. Yet, I also agreed with his denigration of JK Rowling and his championing of Philip Roth and Don Delilo. Bloom was a tiring defender of the "Western Cannon"; he had famously called the feminist and Marxist interpreters of literature of his time "the school of resentment." In short, he was a character, the way Nabokov or Gore Vidal were. He had been fictionalised before (Bloom himself maintained that he was the inspiration behind Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater). Here, in his Pulitzer winning novel The Netanyahus (2021), Joshua Cohen's treatment of Harold Bloom is a finely combed comedy that rivals its Jewish predecessors in how brilliantly it converges the anxieties of academia with the eccentrics populating history.
Post-war, Harold Bloom was once asked at his university to "co-ordinate the campus visit of an obscure Israeli historian named Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who showed up for a job interview and lecture with his wife and three children in tow and proceeded to make a mess" of his house. Of the three children, the middle one would one day go about to be the Prime Minister of Israel, shaping the future of the region influenced greatly by his father's brand of Zionism. It goes without saying that any writer worth his salt would seize upon this bit the minute they come across it.
Cohen's book confidently deals with the comedy of the Jewish family. Joshua Cohen's Bloom, Ruben Blum, is a historian teaching at a mediocre university upstate so he can fast-track a tenureship. He is the only Jewish faculty member there (Bloom too had been the first Jewish person to receive tenure from Yale's English Department). His hands are tied when the head of his department requests him to chaperone one Netanyahu, an historian they are looking to hire and interview. Blum's wife Edith is unhappy and works at the library. Their daughter Judy hates the shape of her nose and in the first half of the novel, before the Netanyahu family arrives, tries to convince her parents to sign off on a nose-job. The sequence reminds one of Alex Portnoy (from Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint) going around to meet girls with his hands over his nose, lest anyone sees he is a Jew!
As Cohen's Bloom traverses through the sensitivity of his task—how does a token Jew go about recommending (or not) this historian and let it be a purely academic decision?—he is overwhelmed with conflicting letters of recommendation that only add to his discomfort. The letters, of chapter length, are some of the gems of the novel. One of them by a professor at the Hebrew University reads: "…Netanyahu himself, who for weeks and weeks has been inundating the faculty here with telegram requests for letters of recommendation, to be sent to you as the secretary of the hiring committee. I do not know how many of my colleagues refused him…I hope I am not the only one who did not refuse him…".
Ruben Blum's discomfort is a necessity. The academic humour (earlier on in the letter, Satan is referred to as "the angel who fell when he failed to get tenure") works much of the time because Cohen has adeptly toned down Harold Bloom's real-life character into a weary one with a noticeable absence of a strong opinion. The change textures in the contrast of the wacky Netanyahus present in the later half of the novel.
In the end credits of the novel, Cohen tells us of sending a draft of the book to the real Judy, a young female relative who had stayed with the Blooms one time. In response to the manuscript, she wrote to him: "No one reads books anymore and the Jews are either on the wrong side of history or just irrelevant. IF YOU'RE HAVING AN IDENTITY CRISIS, I'm sorry…"
On the contrary, it seems to me that Cohen has finally found his place in literature. I remember when a previous novel of his, Book of Numbers, was making the rounds as the "Infinite Jest of the Internet"—a line even Cohen will agree now doesn't excite anybody. His time as Edward Snowden's ghostwriter isn't exactly what a literary writer wants to be solely known for. However, with The Netanyahus, Joshua Cohen fits in perfectly among the Bellows and Roths of American literature. Surely, he has written a novel even Harold Bloom would approve of.
Shahriar Shaams has written for SUSPECT, Third Lane Mag (forthcoming), Commonwealth Writers' Adda, Six Seasons Review, and Jamini. Find him on twitter @shahriarshaams.