WITHOUT EXCITEMENT THERE CANNOT BE LOVE
Between reading the majority of Moving Kings (Joshua Cohen, published July 2017 by Fitzcarraldo Editions) and sitting down to write this review, I’ve had a massive breakdown. Not the most massive a breakdown you can have – no psychosis – but weeks of panic attacks while hiding inside cupboards, screaming into the sky in public, lying on pavements and weeping, daily nightmares that seep into conscious premonitions of death, going to city farms to stare at goats instead of going to work, full days spent in the psychiatric section of A&E, so, like, yeah, a full-on breakdown.
I don’t think Moving Kings and my breakdown are necessarily linked, but I think the context of my mental decline – and the book’s inability to arrest it – is significant. For me, a great book stops the world. A great book, any great book, is as compatible with a breakdown as staring at a cute dog is compatible with not smiling. Moving Kings – though inarguably a “good book” – isn’t the kind of book one can read to reawaken their dying soul. Moving Kings is well-written, well-structured and engages with interesting topics, but Moving Kings doesn’t feel in any way remotely fresh. Maybe the pop culture and the technology is up to date, but Cohen’s massively acclaimed novel (also newly released over in Trump’s America) didn’t do anything to me I hadn’t felt done to my reading self many, many times before. It reminded me of all those books that increasingly underwhelmed me as I read my way through – and then beyond – the texts that claim to the title of The Great American Novel.
Moving Kings is a beefy, blokey, book about American perceptions of contemporary Israel, mostly focused on the Jewish diaspora of New York and its environs. There are multiple protagonists: the first to be introduced is David King, a wealthy baby boomer who runs a logistics company that shares its name with the novel. He is divorced, he’s into drugs and fucking his secretary (who’s like clingy, y’know), but most importantly he’s into making shitloads of cash. He’s a typical American [anti-] hero: wealth accumulated by effort, combined with a vestige of empathy in a character overwhelmed by flaws. One of these flaws – and the one that will prove to be significant – is his paternalistic wish to look after Yoav, his Israeli cousin’s son, met once when Yoav was a child. In the present day, David arranges for his company to give Yoav (and his buddy Uri) some back-hand, visa-free work when they arrive into America following their national service. Together, Yoav and Uri try to integrate into the American youth culture scene (or whatever) but are frustrated by a) a language barrier (minor for Yoav but severe for Uri) and b) the repercussions of their time spent in the Israeli army. Naturally, chaos ensues.
Cohen weaves together his multiple strands and multiple flashbacks very well, there are great passages of description and evocative descriptions of male ennui. It ticks all those boxes of books that are meant to be “good”: race and identity are explored; the immigrant and the touristic experience of being culturally overwhelmed; regret and ageing; mortality and railing against it… The big themes of American letters are here, and big themes related to the contemporary world crop up too: the problems with landlords and increasing rents and overseas property investors; money and international trade is important, the way people structure their lives and their finances; people trying to connect with estranged family members; intoxication and addiction and the reasons for it; homelessness; poverty as the counterpoint to affluence…
All these big, weighty, hefty topics, all discussed in accessible and uncomplex but simultaneously explorative prose… When one pulls Moving Kings apart, it is easy to see that all the ingredients are present for a great book, but in combination they achieve something underwhelming, and – important – underwhelming in a familiar way. Moving Kings feels like a novel written to a formula, even down to its inclusion of a weird (and v male fantasy) sex scene in the middle of the book. This is the Updike, Franzen, school, y’know – American novels on big themes that are good, y’know, unquestioningly good, but when you’ve read one you’ve read them all. No, that’s unfair: when you’ve read five or six you’ve read most of them, and when you’ve read ten or fifteen you’ve definitely read them all. And, sadly, I have read ten or fifteen of this type of novel, and my appetite for them has long been sated, and was probably sated even before that weird Summer when everyone read and raved about John Williams’ Stoner, another underwhelming book from the same school.
I get it, I get that explorations of affluent WASP and affluent North American Jewish lives are different from each other, but these stories are presented in the same way, with the same styles and the same voices. Moving Kings was published by a major publisher in the US (as were Cohen’s previous novels here), and that is the kind of place where this book belongs. It is a good book, but it’s a good book by rote, y’know (I need to stop saying “y’know”, I know, but I’m recovering from a breakdown SO PLEASE JUST BEAR WITH ME), it’s a good book in the tradition of good books, it’s a good book that doesn’t feel like it’s taking any risks, that doesn’t feel like it’ll offend, annoy or insult anyone, it’s a good book that lacks bite, it’s a good book that is never going to be anyone’s favourite novel, it’s a good book without question, and – for me – that’s what makes it disappointing.
Fitzcarraldo Editions – and indie presses in general – usually do something mainstream publishers don’t. Indie presses take risks, have to take risks, because without risky publications they’re never going to get any attention. Indie presses put out books like The Wake, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, Attrib. & Other Stories, Quiet Flows The Una, Pond. Big publishers put out books that are like books they’ve already had success with, because they are big machines with big overheads (MIXED METAPHOR) that need oiling. Indie presses have lower overheads, less staff, y’know, and get their kicks out of publishing literature that wouldn’t get a hearing elsewhere. The reasons for this are diverse, but one similarity I find between books published by indie presses is their uniqueness. Fitzcarraldo Editions is one of my favourite publishers and they’ve put out many of the best books I’ve read over the last couple of years. And those great books, those INCREDIBLE books, are books unlike anything I’ve read before. That book on football, that book on smoking, that book on suicide, Claire-Louise Bennett’s prose, Mathias Enard in translation, y’know, AMAZING books. By publishing Moving Kings – a good book in a traditional, riskfree sense – they have done something they didn’t need to do. There is no arguing that Cohen is a good writer, that his book is successful as literature, but it feels so familiar, so part of that style/canon of “American novels”, that there’s nothing to get excited by, and without excitement there cannot be love.
Had I reread Zone instead of reading Moving Kings, I would never have felt so low, so broken, so depressed. There is power in the potentiality of art. Literature exists – much of it published by Fitzcarraldo – that makes life seem worth living. Writers, thinkers and translators have contributed to the output of this publishing house that consistently maintains my faith in the changing and eternal power of literature. Moving Kings – as technically “good” as it is – did nothing to make me enthusiastic about the world of books or the world of America. I hadn’t read this text before, but I’d read its style, its concerns and its worldview. By all means read and enjoy it – there is nothing (other than that sex scene) to dislike – because Moving Kings is a good book, it does what it’s meant to do. But it’s literary fiction like loadsa literary fiction. It’s literary fiction that’s going to change no one’s life.
Moving Kings is a good book, but it’s a good book in the same way that hundreds of books are good books and that – for me – isn’t good enough. I want great books that are great in ways I could never imagine. I want books to make me hungry for literature and life and everything inbetween. Moving Kings isn’t exciting as a work of literary art. It’s fine, it’s good, but Pond and Zone are published by the same people and are both unique, life-changing, texts. Read those, if you haven’t. Do support Fitzcarraldo and other indie presses, because amazing, unexpected, books are pouring from them. This book – though it’s good – isn’t amazing.
o o o
Scott Manley Hadley is not OK and blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.