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It All Comes down to Real Estate

Q & A with Joshua Cohen

Given the fixation of Joshua Cohen’s latest novel, Moving Kings, with the violence of real estate, it seems appropriate that we meet in SoHo—where $2,100 stag leather boots have long since supplanted the artists who once flocked to the former commercial lofts, a switcheroo rendered unremarkable in a city under siege by financiers seeking hip, high-ceilinged condos in which to park their hard-earned dollars. According to Avery Luther—an African American Vietnam vet turned evictee who figures prominently in the novel’s third act—it’s just another battle in the “Armageddon war between chattel capitalism and the precariat.” And we all know how well that’s going.

The sentences of Moving Kings wind around the lives of Yoav and Uri, veterans of the last Gaza War shipped to New York City for a year of rest, recovery, and backbreaking work for Yoav’s distant cousin David King, the divorced and hair-plugged proprietor of Kings Moving Inc., a tri-state heavyweight in the moving, storage, and eviction industries (slogan: “The Moving King Will Move Your Mothertrucking Everything”). As Yoav and Uri resettle upwardly mobile yuppies and evict delinquent, downwardly mobile tenants across the five boroughs, Cohen prods, to quote Jon Day at Bookforum, “what it means to be unhomed and what it might feel like to unhome others in return.”

Cohen and I speak for over an hour about the trouble with metaphor, as well as notions of masculinity, identities unfixed, and the entertainment industry remake of politics. Outside, power tools clatter, emblems of the neighborhood’s ongoing sterilization. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 


Zach Webb: You’ve noted before that, “We’re living in the reality show version of reality,” and it is now the concern of art to react by “laying bare or appearing to lay bare the processes by which the people we read about or watch or listen to become ‘themselves.’” Did that concern influence the composition of Moving Kings?

Joshua Cohen: In so many media today we find a craving for backstage dramas—for backstory, in an alternate meaning: the story behind the story. But this book has none of those tendencies, none of those aims, to lay bare the mechanisms, the technologies, of making. Moving Kings, unlike Book of Numbers, is straight realism: almost aggressively straight in its realism.

I knew, from the start of my writing, that I could’ve written a single-metaphor book: mapping a 1:1 correspondence between the displacements of Israel-Palestine and displacements in New York. But that wouldn’t have satisfied me—or the politics of either situation.

I was annoyed by metaphor—or, better, a word that sounds Yiddish: I was “aggravated.” Some time in the midst of the last presidential campaign, I realized: I wasn’t quite sure what metaphor was for anymore—and I’m using metaphor in more of a structural or form-based, not sentence-based, way, to include allegory and parable.

I’d come to think of metaphors like celebrities now: they do nothing; they make nothing; they exist purely to be recognized. It’s just a spotting game that readers play: they encounter a metaphor, they point, they yell, they take out their phones and record it, then post it online—that’s enough.

After Book of Numbers, I wanted to write a book about, or with, non-celebrities. No tech billionaires this time. No fancy locations. Just guys with their heads down, grunts—former IDF soldiers damaged and doing damage.

For my readers, unhousing people in Palestine and unhousing people in New York might be two halves of a metaphor, but for my characters they’re just two experiences of a working life.

ZW: The setting is 2015. Trump is mentioned only once, seemingly off the cuff when the wait staff working a party hosted in Mr. King’s residence wear white smocks emblazed with Trump International logo. Yet, one of the Trump family’s central business ventures is at the core of the novel: real estate. What drew you here, to this industry and its inherent violence?

JC: What else is the Israel-Palestine conflict about, besides real estate? I know that might come off as trivial, but—what is real estate? It’s a roof over my head so that I’m protected from weather. It’s a neighborhood. A home.

And anyone who’s ever been involved in a real-estate dispute knows how bitter and endless such clashes can be: property isn’t just a symbol of survival, it’s survival itself.

The most crass aspects of our consumption tend to hide what most scares us. You learn this from anyone who has problems controlling how much they eat, controlling how much sex they pursue. You learn this, I think, just from living in New York. All instances of gluttony, lust, and greed—which seem to me basic vices, even quaint vices—are to my mind secret expressions of our fundamental fear: never being loved.

Where these vices become truly dangerous is when people treat them as motivations to vote—when they elect a person who shares these vices into office. This is how I view Trump and, incidentally, how I view most of the Israeli leaders of my lifetime: there’s this acquisitive impulse, for wealth, for power, and not least for land, which masks an essential insufficiency.

ZW: The Last Last Summer,” published last year in n+1, and wherein Trump appears “dressed to impress in a padded Brioni suit and a tie with a scrotum-sized knot,” is a sturdy critique of hypermasculinity but stops short of an explicit condemnation of the beating egomania at the heart of Trump, his hyperbolic performance of masculinity and the structures which inherently reward such behavior. For all the condescending attention paid to the dimwitted bachelors playing poker in Trump’s former and now decaying casino, I’m surprised you didn’t hit harder on that front.

JC: Maybe the reason I didn’t is because I don’t see Trump, or his behavior, as masculine. Maybe I grew up with a different type of men, but to me masculinity was never performative—it wasn’t WWE masculinity, with shiny muscles and staged violence.

If I have any notion of what it means to be a man, it involves another kind of wrestling: not WWE, but, say, Jacob with the angel. Or a wrestling with your appetites, your desires.

Kings don’t move. Staying put is one of the many privileges of kings.

To me, being a man means, first off, recognizing that you made it—you won a sort of evolutionary lottery. That you have come to exist on this planet means that you’re something of a murderer. Or that you’re descended from murderers.

And so I see masculinity as a constant negotiation: you have to acknowledge your drives, you have to understand your drives, you have to figure out how your drives can most completely be satiated in whatever current political and legal climate—you have to try not to kill anyone, without killing yourself. That to me is manhood, for heterosexual men, for homosexual men, the same—all have to contend with the genetic inheritance of the gender.

Trump, to my mind, doesn’t wrestle that way. He’s just surrendered, making everyone the victim of his appetites and desires.

This, ultimately, is why I don’t think he’s a man. A man is someone who knows the damage of which he’s capable.

 ZW: To me, masculinity is how one occupies space. The masculine impulse is to take up more space than is necessary, to spread your legs too wide on the subway, to own a larger home than is even remotely essential for subsistence. With that comes the assumption that one should be comfortable—welcome, in fact—in all spaces and that one is qualified to speak universally on behalf of other spaces and other bodies.

JC: But acting as if you’re qualified to speak universally and being free to speak universally are different, of course.

What you’re doing is describing masculinity, and I’m prescribing it—and I far prefer a prescriptive definition in this case, because it provides an ideal to which to aspire. Because I think it’s important not just to say what men are, or what they act like, but also to remind them, in a phrase I’ve spoken to myself, and spoken to movers: “Please don’t break shit.”

ZW: By the way, are you subscribed to Lockheed Martin catalogs now, from researching Moving Kings? Did you find yourself wandering around storage facilities in New Jersey? How did you go about accumulating these details?

JC: I went out to a number of eviction protests—rather, I participated in a number of human barricades that tried to prevent eviction-movers from entering the premises (and that also, it must be said, tried to prevent bystanders from stealing possessions that the movers put out on the curb). I’d like to say that I was at those scenes more as a citizen than as a rubbernecker, but unfortunately, if you’re a novelist, the best you can be is halfway both. A human and a thief. Anyway, that was the bulk of my research—if you discount the many days, weeks, months of my life I’ve spent in Israel, since I was a child.

I think the most difficult aspect of writing this book wasn’t informational, but anti-informational: the creation of characters who aren’t that smart, or who don’t have a verbal intelligence. That was disturbing for me—that was difficult and disturbing—because I rely too much on my own verbal intelligence, in person as on the page. I talk my way into my thoughts. I can talk myself into thinking anything. And I’m ashamed of that—I’m ashamed just admitting this here—but one of the hopes of writing this book was to write away from that capability, to write against that capability. I wanted to quiet myself. I wanted to shut my mouth, or the mouth in my head, and write a bit more with my other body parts.

ZW: Yoav, in a moving van between “the old apartment already moved out and the new apartment not yet moved into,” finds that “for a moment, your burdens were suspended. For a certain span of mileage, you were weightless, you were free.”

Elsewhere in the book, “wandering was just an emergency measure” for the Jews. They are “forced to circulate, and so to conceal their identities, to convert or exchange their identities; in every situation, they had to remain fungible,” as you wrote in a 2016 piece on Bernie Sanders. The novel returns again and again to the act of movement and wandering.

JC: It was my plan, from the beginning of the book, that all the characters have to be moving—they have to be in motion—at all times. If you’re a moving king, it seems to me that you’re well on your way to becoming a dead king. Because kings don’t move. Staying put is one of the many privileges of kings.

The notion of being liberated, or undefined, was interesting to me—the idea of a gap-year where you can just float—or where you think you can just float, but then reality intrudes, realism intrudes, and you have to go to work. I’m always attracted to spaces, to times, in which you’re not in any way answerable—not answerable to family, to nationality, identity.

The whole entire matrix of ideas about fixity, or Jewish lack-of-fixity: that when the immovable king who rules over you decides to oppress you, the only way to survive is to flee; that to stay in one place, to become settled in one place, just means that your enemy knows where to find you; that to have a home is to have something to lose, and that if you have something to lose, someone will always come by and make sure that you lose it—all of this wisdom, or dubious wisdom, derived from the European Jewish diaspora comprises a lot of anti-Zionist poetics that fascinate me, not least because they constitute an argument against Israel as a Jewish state that doesn’t require a political stance with regard to the Palestinian cause.

I came of intellectual age among people who subscribed to this: whose argument against Israel was purely Jewish-cultural-historical: an internal, or family, concern.

ZW: You limit most of your formal experimentation to the level of the sentence. It is—and I shudder at this term—an “efficient” novel. What led to the contours, constraints of Moving Kings?

JC: Being read, I think, as owing much to Wallace. Or to Pynchon. Being lazily read as being indebted to, or just enamored of, their models. As if the only books I could write were long. As if the only books I could write were unaccommodating. People talk about Witz. People talk about Book of Numbers. But Four New Messages is short. As are two of my other novels—but they were published on small presses, so while their smallness is doubled, they’re still forgotten.

The American public seems to me to be readers of fiction who’ve misapplied literary reading techniques to the public sphere.

I wanted to write taut, write tight, with Moving Kings—but then, I want to write everything, and I’ll try to. The only lodestar I have isn’t size, but just the amorphous sense (and maybe it’s religious in a Jewish way, or maybe it’s religious in an American way) that whatever I write has to be, or feel, “found.” It has to be written, so that it’s read, as if it were “received.” A book for me has to be like a country, which I’m deluding myself is undiscovered, unexplored, unpopulated, and all I have to do is found it, flaws and all.

ZW: Yoav, by way of the narrator, expresses resentment for the constant contact demanded by the contemporary moment, what he views as a form of control. You’re not on social media. Why?

JC: Yoav and I have this in common: we both have Jewish mothers. Talk about a crisis of overcontact. There’s this ingrained sense of ownership over a child. Over a child’s mind.

A parent can be so controlling that you internalize her or him—you re-parent yourself. Whether you seek that maternal or paternal voice in another person like a romantic partner or whether you constantly have it in your head as a self-monitory voiceover, that feeling of always being enthralled to a power, or embedded within a power hierarchy, is as natural to member of a family as it is to a soldier in an army.

The elements of surveillance in the book might come from and be filtered through technology, but they’re grounded in the filial relationships. “What are you doing? What are you up to? Who are you with? Where when why how?” All of these questions that Facebook or Instagram ask us, we’re asked by our parents first.

So: I’ve had enough of answering. And too, I’ve had enough of the pressures to be not just public, but publicly appealing. Sometimes it’s impossible to communicate humor, say, to a single person. It’s always impossible to communicate humor to every single person in the world.

Books—all individual communications, I think—should be parochial. Each should have its community, as its object and subject of address. Because nothing truly independent and individual can withstand the scrutiny of masses.

A book is a communication between author and reader. There’s an intimacy there. And I can’t be intimate with everyone—I don’t want to be. My parents wouldn’t approve.

ZW: You’ve said several times now: “That ’70s generation asked, ‘Is this true?’ Novelists now have to ask, ‘Can we live with it?’” I wonder if—in this ostensibly “post-fact” age—we’re back to asking, “Is this true?” 

JC: I don’t think we’re in a “post-fact” age—I think the suspicion that we are is just an indication of how the entertainment industry has remade politics.

What’s the phrase from school—“the suspension of disbelief”? What does it mean? It means that an audience member or reader knows that what’s unfolding in front of them is incredible—that is, not credible—but they force themselves to go along with it anyway, banking on the implicit promise that there’s a payoff at the end.

One of the most important lessons for a writer is that there are things that you might not want to put into a book, but that have to be put into a book, because they enable later satisfactions: they set things up for a climax, or conclusion. There’s a slight disappointment when you realize this, but once you do, you understand how necessary a certain type of falsity, or overstatement, or caricature, is to providing readers with a catharsis.

I’m convinced that the “fake news” people know that their news is fake, and enjoy that it is, because that fakery situates them inside a plot: it makes a narrative out of their episodic lives. They’ve agreed to suspend their disbelief and pretend that all is credible, in the hopes of a denouement. They want to find out how everything comes together in the end.

I’m saying that a vast swath of the American public seems to me to be readers of fiction—lovers of literature—who’ve misapplied literary reading techniques to the public sphere.

They’re doing for Trump what readers have always done for novelists: they’re forgiving his lapses and subscribing to his wildest imaginations, fantasies, figments, and lies, because they’re confident that he’ll ultimately bring it all home for them.

It’s fascinating to me that Trump is being treated like a novelist (without all the poverty and editing), while I as a novelist have been charged with all of the burdens of the presidency, yet none of its benefits or powers. Think about it: Trump gets to say whatever he wants, while I need to be inoffensive, politically correct, diligent, honest, responsive to my constituencies, sympathetic, empathetic, and broad in my appeal.

Funny. Hilarious.

So much so I could die.