Image: page from Per­spec­ti­va Cor­po­rum Reg­u­lar­i­um, engraved by Jost Amman (1568) after Wen­zel Jam­nitzer (detail)

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, Har­ris Bris­bane Dick Fund, 1924 

Col­or over­lay: Kather­ine Messenger

We’re told not to put style over sub­stance, but in some books, style becomes sub­stance. Such is the case in Joshua Cohen and Colum McCann’s lat­est nov­els, win­ners of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Fic­tion in 2021 and 2020, respectively.

Both books expand out­ward from real events. McCann’s Apeirogon fol­lows two men, Israeli Rami Elhanan and Pales­tin­ian Bas­sam Aramin, who bond after each los­es a young daugh­ter in the unre­lent­ing con­flict with which they live. In The Netanyahus, Cohen trans­forms an anec­dote told to him by the lit­er­ary crit­ic Harold Bloom into the sto­ry of Ruben Blum — a pro­fes­sor whose efforts to be accept­ed in a remote col­lege town in New York state are jeop­ar­dized when he hosts a brash Israeli col­league, Ben-Zion Netanyahu.

In recast­ing true hap­pen­ings as fic­tion, Cohen and McCann play with genre and form, unrav­el­ing our expec­ta­tions about nar­ra­tive struc­ture as well as com­mon­ly held ideas about his­to­ry. In con­ver­sa­tion, the two authors delve into the craft of con­vey­ing the mul­ti­tude of view­points that can sur­round a sit­u­a­tion, and the near-impos­si­bil­i­ty of rec­on­cil­ing them.

Bec­ca Kan­tor: In your recent nov­els, both of you fic­tion­al­ize his­tor­i­cal events in dis­tinc­tive ways. How did you decide what form these ren­der­ings would take?

Joshua Cohen: I increas­ing­ly doubt the idea of an author mak­ing deci­sions while writ­ing fic­tion. Maybe a bet­ter way of putting it is: the fic­tion decides. All I can do is remain recep­tive and write, and then exam­ine the choic­es made for me and try to jus­ti­fy them or try again de novo. I think that’s my pri­ma­ry agency: mak­ing the call of whether or not I should toss some­thing out and start again, with the hope that this time I’m inhab­it­ed by some bet­ter spirit.

Colum McCann: I agree. I even doubt the word fic­tion.” The rela­tion­ship between fic­tion and sup­posed truth has always been com­pli­cat­ed. Where do we draw the line? The anthro­pol­o­gist Clif­ford Geertz wrote about the real being imag­ined, and the imag­ined being real. I have often said that facts are mercenary.They can be manip­u­lat­ed to do what­ev­er work you need them to do. But this isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly neg­a­tive — they can work miracles.

Rather than attempt­ing to record facts,” I try to cap­ture tex­ture”: small, anony­mous moments in con­junc­tion with over­ar­ch­ing epic ones. I think tex­ture gets to the deep­er truth. But don’t get me wrong. I don’t priv­i­lege the poet over the jour­nal­ist, or the fic­tion writer over the essay­ist. I just like the prop­er word put in the prop­er place. On a very sim­ple lev­el it’s all about sto­ry­telling: can you tell a good sto­ry that reveals what Faulkn­er called the human heart in con­flict with itself ”?

As for the form the fic­tion or non­fic­tion takes, well, it comes down to a gut feel­ing. I write from a place that I don’t real­ly under­stand, nor do I want to under­stand it in the sense that I do not want to be acute­ly con­scious of what I’m try­ing to say. The read­er might have a bet­ter under­stand­ing than I do.

BK: In a sense, both of these nov­els are about com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives of the past. Joshua, in The Netanyahus, Ruben tells us that the default Amer­i­can ver­sion of his­to­ry is lin­ear, while Netanyahu posits that the Jew­ish way of look­ing at his­to­ry is cir­cu­lar — end­less cycles of anti­semitism. Are either of these con­cepts reflect­ed in the shape of your own book?

JC: I think so, yes, but then I think writ­ing any­thing is always some sort of argu­ment between the trag­ic cir­cle and the melior­ist line, and the ten­sions between the two are bound to be reflect­ed for­mal­ly. I guess that in nov­els, the idea is to have a char­ac­ter change. But change is pret­ty inim­i­cal to Jew­ish sto­ry­telling, and to cer­tain sto­ries told about Jew­ish his­to­ry. For Jews, change is a type of mes­sian­ism, and so it’s either false or defin­i­tive, and that pos­es cer­tain dif­fi­cul­ties for Jew­ish nar­ra­tives (I’m try­ing to avoid say­ing Jew­ish plots”) no mat­ter where they’re found — whether in my books or in the found­ing of Israel.

BK: Speak­ing of nar­ra­tive form, apeirogon” means a shape with a count­ably infi­nite num­ber of sides, approach­ing but not reach­ing a cir­cle.” Colum, this def­i­n­i­tion seems to encap­su­late not only the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict, but also the form of your nov­el — in which brief, num­bered chap­ters build to the two tes­ti­monies at the book’s cen­ter and then decrease, com­ing full cir­cle. How did you decide to struc­ture your nov­el this way?

CM: The idea of an apeirogon sounds crazy and impos­si­ble and beau­ti­ful all at once — and it is.You can be part of an infi­nite shape and land on any finite point with­in it. You can be at home and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly every­where else. And you can be lost, too. I think it’s a word that sug­gests so much about who and where we are now. It’s also a word that fits in well with the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict, not because it sug­gests that the con­flict is impos­si­ble to under­stand, or that it has no end­ing point — far from it. It’s more because we are all com­plic­it, we are all involved, no mat­ter who or where we hap­pen to be.

Telling the sto­ry apeirog­o­nal­ly” seemed like the right way to go. It’s struc­tured in 1,001 can­tos, and it can be con­fus­ing, espe­cial­ly at first. But the sit­u­a­tion in Israel and Pales­tine is also con­fus­ing. I want­ed to repli­cate this con­fu­sion by try­ing to dis­ori­ent the read­er in the begin­ning — not gra­tu­itous­ly, but in order to show that con­fu­sion is okay and can even be embraced. Con­fu­sion can put us on the verge of understanding.

The idea of an apeirogon sounds crazy and impos­si­ble and beau­ti­ful all at once — and it is. You can be part of an infi­nite shape and land on any finite point with­in it. You can be at home and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly every­where else.

BK: One way both of you high­light alter­nate inter­pre­ta­tions of his­to­ry is by break­ing up the main nar­ra­tion with oth­er mate­r­i­al. Joshua, Ruben’s nar­ra­tion is inter­rupt­ed by two con­tra­dic­to­ry let­ters about Netanyahu. In the Cred­its and Extra Cred­it” sec­tion at the end of the book, an email from the woman who inspired the char­ac­ter of Judith calls the rest of the sto­ry into ques­tion. How do these var­i­ous forms of cor­re­spon­dence add to our under­stand­ing of com­pet­ing sto­ries in the novel?

JC: I like com­pli­ca­tion (and not just for the sake of com­plex­i­ty). I like bring­ing in mul­ti­ple voic­es and points of view, doing my best to deny offi­cial accounts and use char­ac­ters to con­tra­dict and cor­rect one anoth­er. This is also how his­to­ry works or at least how it’s writ­ten, with each gen­er­a­tion chal­leng­ing the pre­vi­ous one, under­cut­ting and upend­ing its com­pla­cen­cies. If I can bring some­thing of this process into print — into a vis­cer­al expe­ri­ence for the read­er — I think I’ve succeeded.

I’ve wound up includ­ing fic­tion­al frag­men­tary texts in all of my books so far: in Four New Mes­sages and Book of Num­bers, there are emails, chats, and inter­views; and in The Netanyahus, there are let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion and lec­tures. I usu­al­ly say that my inter­est in this comes from tech­nol­o­gy, my sense of liv­ing today enmeshed in oth­er people’s texts, and even in self-gen­er­at­ed, author­less texts like some algo­rithms and source code, but now that I’m answer­ing ques­tions for a Jew­ish pub­li­ca­tion, I’ll add that it might also have some­thing to do with the inter­pre­ta­tive tra­di­tion, try­ing to bring pilpul to the novel.

BK: The nar­ra­tion of Apeirogon is also fre­quent­ly inter­rupt­ed by oth­er mate­r­i­al, includ­ing report cards, tran­scrip­tions of graf­fi­ti, and pho­tographs. The pho­tographs are uncap­tioned, so read­ers can nev­er be com­plete­ly sure what they’re look­ing at. Colum, how did you choose these images? Do you see them as con­firm­ing the verac­i­ty of the text, or draw­ing atten­tion to its subjectivity?

CM: I like the Whit­manesque nature of what Joshua said: Do I con­tra­dict myself? Very well then I con­tra­dict myself.” We all con­tain those mul­ti­tudes. The pho­tos help and they also confuse.

I want­ed to write a nov­el that would make sense to those peo­ple who know Israel and Pales­tine inti­mate­ly, but I also want­ed it to make sense to those who know noth­ing about the region. I com­pare read­ing the book to going into a build­ing … Some peo­ple will only enter the ground floor; oth­ers will reach every sin­gle floor. But no mat­ter how much of the house the read­er sees, the expe­ri­ence has to reveal some­thing deep and abiding.

I began by mak­ing spi­der dia­grams and hop­ping about on the Inter­net. Some­times I went down a dig­i­tal rab­bit-hole and end­ed up miles away. But the fact was that I had tak­en a jour­ney, and the jour­ney mat­tered. I won­dered if I could repli­cate that feel­ing while using the sto­ry of Rami and Bas­sam as a touch­stone. As a nov­el­ist, you’re con­tin­u­al­ly struck by images. They become their own form of poet­ry. They sug­gest rather than instruct.

BK: Joshua, lan­guage has so much polit­i­cal weight in The Netanyahus. Peo­ple and schools are renamed in response to any­thing from a desire to assim­i­late to shifts in social mores, and Netanyahu insists that most his­to­ri­ans’ unfa­mil­iar­i­ty with Hebrew is real­ly just anti­semitism. How do you see lan­guage as a reflec­tion of belonging?

JC: Lan­guage is belong­ing, pure and sim­ple. It is the mark, the sign of who you are, who you’ve been, and who you want to be. Every word in every lan­guage is like a shib­bo­leth: it tells who­ev­er the gate­keep­er is whether or not you can pass. Or per­haps an even more bib­li­cal way of putting it is this: lan­guage is cre­ation­ary. God spoke and the world was cre­at­ed. We speak and cre­ate ourselves.

Every word in every lan­guage is like a shib­bo­leth: it tells who­ev­er the gate­keep­er is whether or not you can pass.

BK: Colum, you pay a good deal of atten­tion to the absence of lan­guage — non­ver­bal sounds and silence. Could you describe the chal­lenges of con­vey­ing these in the text, and why it was impor­tant to do so?

CM: I didn’t real­ize this until you asked the ques­tion, but you’re cor­rect. There’s so much silence in the nov­el. John Cage’s 433piece. The silence between words. There are even two pas­sages that are left blank. I sup­pose I want­ed to cap­ture the impor­tance of lis­ten­ing, which is when our best silence happens.

BK: Rather than being pro­pelled by action, the chap­ters of Apeirogon are often con­nect­ed by motifs, which can be beau­ti­ful and hor­rif­ic in turn. For exam­ple, in one chap­ter you describe a musi­cal com­po­si­tion with an open­ing as seduc­tive as the shape and fra­grance of a flower” and in the next, you reveal that Abir’s name means fra­grance of the flower.” Lat­er in the book, we learn that in Israeli army slang, a flower is some­one who has been seri­ous­ly wound­ed in bat­tle.” How did you go about draw­ing out this type of association?

CM: I found that I was try­ing to write Apeirogon as if it were a piece of music. Sym­phon­ic. There I was like a con­duc­tor, get­ting this going with the cel­lo and that going with the flute, and then all of a sud­den, a fig­ure would arrive at the back of the hall with a brand-new instru­ment in her hand, an instru­ment that I had nev­er seen before. And I had to invite this new musi­cian into the orches­tra and try to incor­po­rate her music into the ongo­ing sound.

That’s what it felt like when I was writ­ing this book. It was thrilling and exhaust­ing at the same time. I was con­stant­ly try­ing to mod­u­late the music. I know noth­ing about music, real­ly — I do sing, but I can’t; I’m that clas­sic bore at par­ties. Yet I know that music must remain the alpha and omega of a nov­el. Tonal and aton­al at the same time. I’d sac­ri­fice mean­ing for music any day, although ide­al­ly you would have both. I want­ed the nov­el to work con­tra­pun­tal­ly, hold­ing numer­ous melod­ic lines at the same time. It’s the same when we think about oth­ers — we have to think con­tra­pun­tal­ly. That’s in essence the mag­ic of Rami and Bas­sam. They are gen­tle­men of the contrapuntal.

BK: Joshua, you often use jux­ta­po­si­tions to comedic effect in The Netanyahus. For exam­ple, Rube’s mother-in-law’s solil­o­quy on the his­to­ry of beds is off­set by a gaseous hiss” from her hus­band in the bath­room. What draws you toward com­e­dy as a writer? What makes it such an effec­tive way of reveal­ing these char­ac­ters’ clashes?

JC: The com­e­dy of my nov­el — and in my opin­ion, of all nov­els — is meant to smooth the way between laugh­ing at oth­ers and laugh­ing at one­self. The for­mer is noto­ri­ous­ly eas­i­er than the lat­ter, but the nov­el attempts to bridge that gap through recog­ni­tion: hope­ful­ly the read­er will find a char­ac­ter fun­ny in one sen­tence, and then much like them­selves in the next. It’s the clash between those two reac­tions that inter­ests me.

BK: Colum, in Apeirogon, you note that Goethe described how dif­fer­ent art forms cor­re­spond to each oth­er: Music is liq­uid archi­tec­ture … and archi­tec­ture is frozen music.” There are many oth­er ref­er­ences to art through­out the nov­el, too. Can you high­light one work in par­tic­u­lar that inspired you?

CM: The 1,001 can­tos that com­prise the nov­el allude to the tales of One Thou­sand and One Nights. By telling their sto­ries, Rami and Bas­sam stay alive and keep their daugh­ters’ mem­o­ries alive, too. So they tell their sto­ries over and over and over again.

This struc­ture didn’t come to me imme­di­ate­ly. I knew I want­ed a frag­ment­ed nar­ra­tive but I didn’t decide to put it into 1,001 can­tos until about two years into the writ­ing process.

Once I decid­ed on the form, Borges became a guid­ing light for me. I want to go beyond the bounds of the obe­di­ent ordi­nary: this is what Bas­sam and Rami do in their own way. They imag­ine some­where new. This is a form of free­dom. What lit­er­a­ture can do is hon­or the heart­break of the world and at the same time lift us out of our abu­lia, if only temporarily.

BK: In The Netanyahus, Rube’s daugh­ter strug­gles with writ­ing a col­lege appli­ca­tion essay on the top­ic What is fair­ness?” How do you both approach this ques­tion as authors? Is it pos­si­ble to be fair in a fic­tion­al­iza­tion of real events? What are the ethics involved in telling some­one else’s story?

JC: Fair­ness is a fic­tion that each soci­ety and per­son cre­ates. That said, I try not to antag­o­nize (or pro­tag­o­nize) my friends, unless the spir­its demand it. I think the ques­tion you’re ask­ing is, is lit­er­a­ture more impor­tant than life? And my answer to that is maybe, some­times, I don’t know, whose lit­er­a­ture, whose life, and any­way aren’t they the same? But ask me the same ques­tion tomor­row — or bet­ter, tell me a secret you don’t want betrayed — and the answer you’ll get might be quite different.

CM: Ha! Yes and yes. You know, there’s an old state­ment about foot­ball or soc­cer: Foot­ball is not a mat­ter of life and death … it’s so much more impor­tant than that.” Fair­ness comes down to hon­esty. And hon­esty is many-sided.

As for telling some­one else’s sto­ry, there is noth­ing to do but that. If I were writ­ing direct­ly about myself, I would lie through my teeth. Which is why inter­views are fas­ci­nat­ing and ter­ri­fy­ing. I’m pret­ty sure I com­mit at least one howl­ing lie in every interview.

Bec­ca Kan­tor is the edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and its annu­al print lit­er­ary jour­nal, Paper Brigade. She received an MA in cre­ative writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of East Anglia. Bec­ca spent a year in Esto­nia on a Ful­bright schol­ar­ship, writ­ing and study­ing the coun­try’s Jew­ish his­to­ry, and anoth­er year in Ger­many vol­un­teer­ing at the Neuengamme Con­cen­tra­tion Camp Memo­r­i­al. She lives in Brooklyn.