Joshua Cohen’s Moving Kings is his shortest and most accessible novel yet. Leaving behind the winding pages of Witz and the meta-narrative The Book of Psalms, here Cohen utilises a simpler form, with a (relatively) chronological, generally third-person narrative perspective. Moving Kings explores the internal dynamics of Jewish Israeli society and the tensions that arise as these collide with New York.
The novel opens with the story of David King, a Jewish New Yorker who runs a successful moving and storage business named “Moving Kings”. David conforms to the archetypal trope of a wheeler-dealer East-Coast Jew, somewhat reminiscent of a Philip Roth character or a stock cameo on the fringes of The Sopranos. The on-the-nose allusion to King David is just one example of the novel’s many up-front symbols. Readers follow David as he negotiates between different social settings, moving from the affluent world of the Hamptons to his warehouse in Jersey. We are all the while privy to his internal familial baggage: his divorce from his wife Bonnie (a convert from orthodox Christianity to Judaism), his daughter Tammy (who dabbles in heroin and anti-Zionist ideas), as well as his personal relationship with his Jewish identity, Israel, and the various members of his extended family based there.
As the plot progresses, David is persuaded to bring his Israeli nephew Yoav and his army partner Uri to work for him in New York. Both Yoav and Uri have recently finished their national service and are reacclimatising to civilian life. Cohen expertly unwinds and strips back these two characters’ personalities, and their efforts to pry themselves from their experiences as soldiers. Flitting between recollections from their army days and the first weeks of their new lives in New York, we gain an insight into Yoav and Uri’s personal struggles and psyches. Yoav’s difficulties negotiating his way through a new life without clearly defined hierarchies is mirrored in Uri’s attempts to reassert his authority in a civilian world for which he is woefully unprepared.
The contrast between David, Yoav and Uri works not simply as a narrative tool to demonstrate plot tensions, but also as a platform to interrogate conflicts of identity, memory and psychological baggage. Cohen convincingly exhibits the vastly different realities of Jewish identity and perspective, and their particular relation to social or national concerns. David’s exaggerated personality as the stock Jewish New Yorker businessman means that he is, inescapably, a caricature. By contrast, Uri and Yoav feel all too human. Just as David represents the success of the American Jewish Diaspora, he also emblematises the pitfalls of that tired Jewish archetype in modern American culture. Contrastingly, the stories of Uri and Yoav take on a very modern Israeli Jewish tone, each bringing fresh psychological burdens with them. The disruption that these two cause as they enter into David’s world – a world of archetypes and stereotypes – is indicative of the tensions between these divergent but colliding Jewish narratives. For them, David is someone who “let himself be lectured, talked down to…become docile, tamed. A Jew.” David’s own anxiety about his relationship with Judaism is quite foreign to Uri and Yoav, who are more preoccupied with processing their new roles and personalities within a post-army setting.
Against a backdrop of the recent housing crisis and rapid gentrification, the Moving Kings removal company begins to pick up more work from evicted properties. As Yoav and Uri, both wittingly and unwittingly, move on from their army experience, their new jobs increasingly begin to resemble the tasks that they undertook as soldiers prior to their emigration. We thus observe the relationship between Israeli soldier and Palestinian through the lens of bailiff and evictee.
Cohen’s ability to weave together disparate realities is impressive and his ability to craft sentences that force pause through their visceral linguistic play is inescapable in a reading of the novel. Even a simple description of smoking cannabis is fabulously conjured: his “brain flew out of his mouth all wet and winged and gooey and purpurogenous”.
Moving Kings has clearly defined purpose. This is a novel about Israeli men coming to terms with civilian life: about a conflict between distinct Jewish identities and perspectives in the contemporary age. These are large and complex themes. And whilst Cohen in many ways excels at addressing them, the multifarious nature of the questions he poses means that some aspects of the text feel underdeveloped.
The parallel between the Israeli occupation and eviction in New York, which ties the novel’s disparate strands together, establishes the power dynamic between occupiers and occupied as a primary concern. Yet the focus rests almost exclusively on the psychological baggage and tension of the occupier. Whereas conflict between the three main characters illuminates their own personal conflicts of identity, the perspective of “the occupied” is rarely given. The only real character on the other side of this power dynamic is Imamu Nabi, whom we observe descend from job loss to drug abuse, spiralling downwards to his eventual wrath against the bailiffs who empty his dead mother’s house. Whether or not Imamu’s conversion to Islam is supposed to make him symbolic of the Palestinian people is unclear. Only eight pages are devoted to Imamu’s story. As such, we are not granted a particularly clear insight into his shifting identity, his conversion from Christianity to Islam, his relationship with his mother, or the depth of injustice he experienced. Without this voice, the dynamic between the powerful and the powerless, and the fully proposed symmetry between evictees and Palestinians is never adequately explored.
Female characters, similarly, experience an absence of voice in Moving Kings. There are many women in the novel, equal only in the sense that they are all secondary characters. There’s no denying the inherent masculinity of Cohen’s chosen worlds, the New York moving and storage industry and Palestinian military life, and this centrality of masculinity is perhaps even a conscious narrative decision. Whereas the men are granted the narrative meat, the plots and words of the women are for the most part lacking. Where they do feature, they are generally negative. In Israel, all of the women are mothers, sisters or ex-girlfriends. In America, the female characters are similarly defined through their particular relationships to David, Uri and Yoav. The perspectives of Tammy, David’s daughter, and Ruth, David’s new partner, are given only through the man to whom they correspond. We read of Tammy’s heroin addiction and recovery through David’s own internal musings on his daughter, but her own perspective eludes us entirely.
Moving Kings is a provocative novel that indisputably showcases Cohen’s profound psychological insights and his delightful grasp of the English language. Ultimately, though, its exploration of intercultural and intergenerational dynamics never feels fully developed.
Asher Kessler  recently completed a BA in Philosophy & Politics at the University of Edinburgh.