The Pulitzer Prize Winner We Didn’t Know We Needed

by Andrew Koenig

In May, the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction was awarded to Joshua Cohen for his comic novel, The Netanyahus, “a mordant, linguistically deft historical novel about the ambiguities of the Jewish-American experience.” It’s worth asking: why this novel now? Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the 2017 winner, and Richard Powers’s The Overstory, the 2019 winner, have exerted an inescapable influence on contemporary fiction, with their focus on counterfactual histories and the environment. It’s hard even to imagine the past few years of literary fiction without them. What about The Netanyahus?

The timing of Cohen’s novel was, first of all, fortuitous. Just as Benjamin Netanyahu’s nearly two-decade hold on Israeli politics was loosening, Cohen wrote a book, novelistic in form but informed by history, that tells an idiosyncratic origin story about Israel’s preeminent political dynasty. Even so, Cohen’s book seems a quirkier affair, narrower in interest than other recent winners. It’s about a kooky family with grand ambitions; their names alone say a great deal. “Benzion” (“God-given”) is the grandiose name bestowed on the book’s main character by his rabbi father, Nathan, who has changed his surname from “Mileikowsky” to the Hebraic “Netan-yahu” (“son of Nathan”). This ancestral act of self-aggrandizement reverberates throughout The Netanyahus. As Cohen writes with characteristic incisiveness, “nearly all of the world’s Jews were involved at midcentury in becoming something else.”

Of course, it’s not exactly Cohen saying this, but his narrator, Ruben Blum (“Rube,” as his colleagues call him), a midcareer professor at the fictional Corbindale College in upstate New York, where he holds the unenviable distinction of being the first and only tenured Jewish professor on faculty. Meanwhile, Benzion Netanyahu is coming to Corbindale College to interview for a job teaching history and religious studies. Blum has been chosen by default to tour Netanyahu around and host him along with his wife and three sons.

Cohen’s depiction of the Netanyahus (“Yahus,” Blum calls them) may well be what grabbed the attention of the prize committee. In the afterword the author explains how he went about depicting them: consulting the hagiographic memoirs of Iddo Netanyahu (“the runtling son”) and the memories of an ailing Harold Bloom, who once hosted the Netanyahu family at Yale while Benzion was on a job visit in real life. But Cohen makes the wise decision to forego making Ruben Blum a Bloomian polymath. Instead, he’s a lowly scholar of American tax law and an informal expert at skewering his own neuroses while remaining helpless to overcome them.

But the emotional heart of the book isn’t really the Netanyahus, who barge into the Blums’ middle-class suburban home halfway through the book with their militarism, their nationalism, and their vulgarity, upsetting everyone and everything, including the brand-new color television. Rather, it’s the life of the Blums, who at times seem like stock characters. Ruben and his wife Edith’s daughter Judy has become an atheist, wants a new nose, and longs to return to New York City. Ruben and Edith’s in-laws are not-so-polar opposites: Ruben’s parents, Eastern European Jewish cloth merchants who live in the Bronx, butt heads with his wife’s highly assimilated German Jewish parents, who live on the Upper West Side—a trope recently revived in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “The yeccas,” Ruben’s father calls them—Cohen has as good an ear as anyone for Yiddish and the foreign-sounding emphases of his émigré characters.

The Netanyahus is cheekily subtitled “an account of a minor and ultimately even negligible episode in the history of a very famous family.” For Cohen, who has done his homework on Israeli history and politics and packs a great deal into a pretty short book, the pending appointment of Benzion Netanyahu at an American university is a microcosm of larger trends in politics and Jewish life. Like the narrator’s father, Netanyahu reminds Ruben Blum of the kind of Jew he could be but isn’t—a zealot, a man of faith, a devotee of Talmud, a layer of guilt trips. The two words Ruben Blum utters most often in the novel are “I’m sorry.” The sorrys punctuating the story typify his precarious position in American society, as an assimilator who’s still alarmed by his daughter’s rejection of Jewish tradition.

Blum is plagued with an overfamiliar anxiety, thoroughly plumbed by former Pulitzer Prize winners: where does a (well-off, well-educated) Jew stand on the totem pole of American society? As he puts it, “My Jewish anxieties are surely hackneyed by now—they might’ve been hackneyed then—but that doesn’t discount their reality. They were real once. And at one time or another they were interesting.” But Cohen is doing something new with the tropes of midcentury Jewish-American life. Ruben Blum’s unextraordinary voice lends the book a living, conversational quality. Between the narrator’s interior monologue, the letters he receives heralding the messianic arrival of Netanyahu, and the man’s own ravings during faculty interviews and guest lectures, the novel feels as much an oral as a written document. (Ruben would doubtless have a Freudian quip about “orality.”)

Cohen melds together disparate genres, “mixing,” as the Pulitzer Prize citation puts it, “fiction with nonfiction, the campus novel with the lecture”—and, it should be added, the psychomonologue, Portnoy’s Complaint being an obvious if uncredited influence. With its penchant for moral hypotheticals and surprising answers, The Netanyahus even has a kinship with the Talmud. Take this exchange between Ruben Blum’s father and his daughter:

“Someone who does only what he believes,” my father said, “what do you think that life is like? What to call someone who he follows that behavior?”

Judy said, “Honest? A hero?”

“Dead. I call him dead.”

It’s not always seamless, but the modulation between genres is well managed, and The Netanyahus is a novel that actually teaches you a thing or two. In this respect, it typifies what contemporary fiction is doing wellasking why history happened the way it did, filling in the gaps with confabulations, exploring the subtle gradations of identity. (Max Gross’s The Lost Shtetl, a darling of the 2020–2021 literary awards season, epitomizes the same set of trends.)

The questions of identity and belonging, importantly, pertain to Israel and its neighbors. The drawn-out timeline is a sleight of hand that allows Cohen to solidify the connection between past and present. Blum is writing, as he mentions in passing, “nearly half-a-century” after the events described, which take place in the winter of 1959–1960. The long view allows Cohen to allude to world developments—Israel’s wars, Bibi’s ascent, campus politics—without having to spell them out. Setting the novel between the formation of Israel in 1948 and the seismic changes of the 1960s is a gambit that pays off. With the benefit of hindsight Ruben can range freely over a whole era of sea-changes in Jewish life and a wide range of topics, chief among them intermarriage and meritocracy.

Cohen certainly isn’t alone among award winners in blurring the line between nonfiction and fiction—George Saunders’s Man Booker Prize–winning Lincoln in the Bardo comes to mind—but he makes the unusual choice of leaving burning questions unanswered. What happens to the Blums’ marriage, to the family life that a weekend visit from the Yahus has threatened to unravel? Did the Netanyahus’ eldest son, Jonathan, violate Judy while both sets of parents were out, or was their encounter consensual?

We aren’t given a clear answer to any of these questions. But then maybe an unsettled ending is the right one for this book, which concludes with the chaotic departure of the Netanyahus from Corbindale after the three sons have wreaked havoc on the Blums’ home and an unusual afterword, which reprints an unhinged email from the real-life analogue of Judy without comment. Cohen has rejected a neat ending in favor of a messy one—a dominant trend in contemporary fiction and one that Cohen gets right. As Netanyahu puts it, the most characteristically Jewish answer is a nonanswer. Netanyahu elsewhere expresses admiration not only for Blum’s questions but for his answers: “An excellent answer, Dr. Blum. An excellent nonanswer, and so a very Jewish answer. I admire it.”

Published on July 22, 2022