The Quorum by Joshua Cohen – Playing at being human, away from the grunt and take.

Because we shouldn’t believe in nations, because we have forsaken our traditions or our traditions have forsaken us, because only individuals matter to those who happen to be one… because everyone has their own voice and we’re all speaking at once, connected through a disconnect and yet still insisting on our fundamental differences, that we’re special, marked by virtue of our sheer existence… Because of all these paradoxes – screaming into each other through any ear and enacting a love-death in the gray middle – how can we truly expect to listen when we want only to be heard? But what is there to say that hasn’t already been ignored? – these are some of the ideas that this book does not address.

I’m not Jewish. This is the first time since I left the small Judaic-obsessed cult I was raised in that I have been sorry I’m not Jewish. I’m not sure if that is a racist statement or not – if its racist to not be Jewish. It’s not that I was glad I wasn’t (except for that whole oppression thing I don’t have to endure), It’s more that it takes 24/7 to come to terms with your own nationality and for me that is enough. I’m suspicious of nationalism anyway – its got that reverse racism thing going, and … well … I AM an Australian. Nuff said.

Having bumbled my way through that foolish introduction, I will say that I have a strange connection with Judaism. I was actually raised in a small cult that is obsessed with “Jewishness”.  Where most Christians think Jesus came to the earth to embrace all nations, the little circle of bookish squares I hung out with called the committed of us, ‘Spiritual Jews’. Where many Christians wear crosses, I wore a star of David. We carried the works of Josephus with us, and learnt smatterings of Hebrew at a Sunday School where we had exams, homework, assignments and had to memorize the lineage of Christ, emphasising his Jewish (ness). As was the norm, I built a scale model tabernacle at age six. By age nine, we could accurately describe the architectural detail of Solomon’s Temple.

Given the depth and breadth of my normal healthy upbringing (!) I found myself reading Joshua Cohen from a perspective of the try-hard Jew. Unlike many of my peers, I successfully escaped the strange environment I was born into, with my life, but those electrically heterotrophic tendrils of pseudo-connection remain – I fear I’d irreparably tear my flesh if I were to yank them out. Prior to this reading, I’d simply buried them, healthily expunging them in fits of anger or depression focused at my loved ones.

Surprisingly, that hasn’t worked out well. Then I picked up Witz, and immediately recognised I’d have to enter this stream at an earlier point. Have you ever had that feeling, when you are connecting with a piece of art, that you are experiencing something very special? For me it happens in the belly, where the seeds of life stir. I’m reading Witz now, and will review it in due time (I absolutely adore that novel) but I wanted some grounding in this very talented writer prior to reading a volume such as Witz.

There are several things about Joshua Cohen that appeal to me. Primarily, he is not a ‘trained writer’  – that is he has not been sausaged out of the meat grinder, minced into an appropriate skin. The second thing I like is, what he did study was music, and I am experiencing a great deal of pleasure at the moment studying the relationship between music and writing, in new warm friendships. Cohen is something of an outsider in the world of books. Not that this alone means anything. It does imply that he is unwilling to write for the establishment.  Which I like very much. I think this courage shows in his writing.

The first cover to cover experience of Joshua Cohen for me then is his book of short stories: The Quorum. I must say initially  the book has been released through Twisted Spoon Press, and it is a lovely object. I have a few Twisted Spoon Press novels (to be reviewed) and they are amongst the most beautiful in my book collection. You can purchase the book through them here, and while you’re at it, pick up some Robert Gal as well – another fine writer published by Twisted Spoon. The Quorumis a series of short stories, six dreams and one rant.

The Trial

He had, and he admitted this to us all in open court… he had… his words were, and I quote: I had overstepped.  Such modesty!  Even in his modesty is he modest! As he recounted here today, everything was heavy, full of ink, one enormous ornament.  A mistake or not, learned gentlemen of the jury, I hold there’s no difference here.  And there as no more space for him.  The creator had no more space in his creation for himself!

The trial opens in a courtroom setting, and within a few line we are aware this is a the trial of Reb Schrieben, who is better known as the Nachmachen. Nachmachen is the German for copy, fake or forgery. He is “An ascetic, surely though one whose asceticism raged only against the temptations of the world below ours, a world Im sure you’ll all remember.” His defense is speaking, following the eloquent speech of the Prosecuting Angel. Nachmachen is trying to get into heaven, and it seems from his behaviour on earth and from the endless stream of (now dead) supporting witnesses, heaven is the perfect place for the Nachmachen. This is a clever story, funny and delivered with  control and precision and deep respect for the intellectual partnership of the reader.

A Redemption

The he had three passions — passions are had in threes: music made with nose (nose-harp, nose-flute, inhalation, sneezing), the philosophy of Hegel, and aphorisms.  he made a list of these, aphorisms, a small notepad full — you’ll find it dripped-upon, under the sink — and read them to a redhead at a local pastry shop where he drank also when he had money.  The aphorism phase was when he realised that none of his thoughts were at all focused. When he was sober everything was half-truth and when he was drunk everything was three times that, truth.

A redemption is the appeal of a young artist to his mentor, hero or some previous artist that may be half him, or that he is hoping (dreading) to embody. This is a fevered, witty piece; a frenzied cry, a desperate appeal, a denial. In an interview with 3am magazine, when talking about the connection between religion and frenzied inspiration, Cohen was asked if writing was a method of playing god. This is Cohen’s reply:

It seems to me that no Divinity would have as much trouble with Its work as I do with mine. If I have to have a place in the hierarchy, it’s as a supplicant. “Frenzied inspiration” as you put it is just man kindled by religion — redress, mercy, an open ear, all that is expected or hoped for, all that is prayed for in prayer, is liberating; there’s nothing more “inspiring” than even the merest promise that someone, Anyone, is listening. Writing for me, then, is a method not of playing God but of playing human. Whereas, when I’m not writing, I’m an animal. I grunt and take.

The Quorum, or a Report to an Academy

You, Academy, once failed to understand the sun and now your understanding of the sun is nearly perfected, shaped and so understand me now, me like the sun, always, turning myself around and around on this one thing and thankfully going nowhere , unwavering, maintaining my position, not out of ego or stubbornness but out of essentially, out of purpose. You, Academy, ignored my light. You, Academy, attempted to keep all in darkness like in that tunnel and round room on the mountain.  Even you, Academy, are unable to stop the sun from rising. You, Academy, will only deny I rose. 

What do I saw about this brilliant short story?  An enmeshed tail , wandering all over the twisted intestines of some great beast – The Academy. A totalitarian authority who experiment on those who are unlucky enough to have banded together under its wings. But does the Academy even exist?

For me, this is the first of Cohen’s short stories that sings. He constructs with a lyricism, that didn’t shine as powerfully before this story. He is not an easy read, and it is possible that he had to train me – teach me how to read him, so that I might walk beside him in these strange barren lands where water flows but never wets the soil. In this short, his language came alive for me, and tickled and twisted and demanded to be read, re-read and read again. Did you get it the first time?  No?  Go back!  You’ll be so glad you did.

And there is one sun, there is one Quorum, or as many Quorums as there are suns, or there are many Quorums who are all one Quorum.There were ten of them in that specific Quorum, or sub-Quorum or sub-sub-Quorum etc., and the Quorum was one of them, which is to write: there weren’t ten and the one was made up of the ten that weren’t that never were.  And that was the Quorum.

The Acrobats

My foot is water says Lucy.  One day outside L., I think.  My foot is water, Lucy says. What do I do? We are acrobats and this is unacceptable.  Water is the foot. God Above. Where my foot was is water. Says Lucy. Water is where my foot used to be. Lucy says this to me while she’s still in bed.  Caravan pulls out in an hour.  I’m awake, standing, thinking of sex.  My penis is also an acrobat (like father, like son) and I want to enter her. God Above. But from under the covers she says, my foot is water and water is my foot.  Framed in the door way. My American was always better than hers.  She lies in the trailer, lies in the bed spread open, hair millions, strung out. Only in bed is she without the tight bun. I wanted to small down and fill her, but I laughed. What do I do?

A simple story of two acrobats, one appears to be losing her body parts to the emotionally baring water between them. Eventually, he will betray her, but the love and wonder exist despite the damaging effects of their simple togetherness. This is SUCH a beautiful story. It left me breathless, and brought tears to my eyes.  The lyricism of Joshua Cohen’s words sings the stories off the page. At times I read sentences aloud to get my strong hold over them, feel them with my tongue.

The Wall

I’ll push my wall across the State, and into the river, where it will be my raft — it’s float! — and I’d raft down the river until the river spills out into the open ocean… the stars should be breathtaking out there … and from there, who knows? I’ll float, maybe… maybe right off the edge of this flattening world. 

This is a beautiful story of grief told with a witty eye for the comic word play. Our protagonist built a wall in his front yard. He built it to keep strangers out, and his loved ones away. But he loses his only child on the wall, and after that the wall becomes a symbol of a vigilant memory of the lost child. Eventually the state want to take the wall away, so the many has to find a way to hold onto his talisman when it has destroyed everything that is good in his life.

These are not all of Joshua Cohen’s brilliant stories, but these are a few that particularly resonated with me. Following on from the stories is a series of six dreams, told from the point of view of six different characters. Each of the dreams have a Freudian edge; about falling, or tasks that can’t be properly completed, being lost, being found, being saved.

Intenstines stretch from the body of one dreamer, reminding him of the communication lines between people and the original one between him and his mother; A man takes a cube from an anonymous girl he expects to be ion his apartment, and finds his skill will be tested on how well he throws it without really knowing what ‘well’ means; A falling dreamer falls all the way down to a big toe, where they climb in for safety under the nail; Falling into water, being rescued by a man and his small boy, leaving without thanking the rescuers; a house or building made of books, is a book and is filled with books, only no one can see what is written in them; A narrow hallway moves and changes as the dreamer floats in and out of images about balloons and beauty.

Finally, The Quorum ends with ‘A rant’ called Cadenza for the Schneidermann.  Violin Concerto, which is a rambling story of a discourse with experimental word play at the base of each page and unashamed play with sentence length.

I really enjoyed this first book I have completed by Joshua Cohen and am looking very much forward to the others of his.  This is a writer who works very hard, the worth of which is revealed in every sentence, and every carefully chosen word. You know you are reading something we haven’t completely worked out how to interpret just yet. This is a writer ahead of his time, and that is what the whole point of it is.