Joshua Cohen's Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto (Fugue State Press) will surely strike most readers as "experimental novel," It is resolutely an attempt to reconfigure the formal elements of fiction (although not to dispense with them), first of all provoking us to ask, like any good experimental novel, whether what we are a reading is actually novel at all, at least according to the standards we are accustomed to applying. And, as good experimental novels do as well, it ultimately leads us to answer our own question: Why not?
Disinguished virtuosi, acclaimed virtuosos and virtuosas of this greatest orchestra in the world, members and memberesses of this fine ensemble, tuxedos and dressed of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, you behind me I've stooped to rehearse with for far too many seasons now and have yet to conquer, consider this your cue! to draw out the longbows: downbows for the 1st violins, upbows for the 2nds--the bowings are as necessary as they are Schniedermann's written into your parts, yes believe it or not, in his own hand, and such hands! (though I helped some, because among many other lacks in this country was a publisher) and, yes, let's have the final cadence, drawn out to the last and stiffest hair, to the frog and to the tip of the bow as they're called,
okay! gasp, and we don't want anyone asphyxiating on us, now do we?
Will the orchestra please stop? desist?
Gasp, it's okay! If you all just remain seated, and listen, I promise that no one will get hurt. Trust me, everything's going to turn out fine.
So declares renowned violinist Laster as he is about to begin his solo (the cadenza) in his friend Schneidermann's concerto. As we will discover, the elderly Schneidermann is missing (he excused himself from a matinee showing of Schindler's List and Laster hasn't seen him since), possibly dead, and Laster has apparently decided that a proper tribute to the composer requires him to speak instead of play. Which he does, for 380 pages.
You'll never find answers in music, only more questions, and so, yes, I have a speaking part, not quite notated, not quite mentioned in the program you've glanced through and idly referenced, riffled through the least piano of my pinanissimos and are manically flipping through to see if I have a history of mental instability, some schizoid personality disorder that would serve to explain this away.
My decision to address you with my voice instead of with my violin.
Schneidermann, as it turns out, is a Holocaust survivor and, in Laster's view, an unjustly neglected composer, the "iconoclast even the iconoclasts worshipped," while he, Laster, has lived a relatively privileged life as a soloist:
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, good evening kids of all ages, good evening my exwives and my wife and prospective wives, good evening some of my own children out there in the audience, good evening my lawyer, my agent, my accountant, good evening my recordlabel execs, good evening my podiatrist (who just last Thursday she told me that my onychauxis it had developed into onychogryphosis, had a professional trim my nails). . . .
Through Laster's mammoth spiel, we learn about both Schneidermann's and his own past, about how, despite Schneidermann's experience in the Shoah, he considered himself one of the last Old World Europeans, about Jewish history, about music. . .It's a fragmented piece of storytelling, to be sure, but eventually we learn those sorts of things we need to know about the characters--and really Laster and Schniedermann dominate the story--and their circumstances that we would get from a more straightforwardly related narrative. Laster is an unusual first-person narrator, but that's what he is, and we ultimately must judge him and his roundabout tale in the same way we would judge a more conventional first-person account.
In other words, the conventional elements of fiction are in play in this novel (substituting for the real playing of the concerto, as it were), but they are rhetorically shuffled in Laster's discontinuous streams of speech. The reader is asked to show a little patience, do a little honest work for his/her pleasure. The novel implicitly asks that we take the reading of a novel to be a unique experience, not just another rote variation on an a pre-established theme, just as Laster's "cadenza" is unlike any previously heard.
And there certainly are pleasures to be found in this novel, however much the easy ones are deferred. Many of the anecdotes Laster relates are compelling, some hillarious; over the long run, Laster's voice, and thus Laster himself, is vividly rendered, leading us through what becomes an hours-long exhortation, even if what we finally remember is probably less Schniedermann (who remains, perhaps unavoidably so, somewhat distanced and enigmatic) than Laster's own desperate attempt to make us remember him. More than anything else, however, there is the language, the Yiddish-inflected, frequently over-the-top speaking style exemplified in the passages I have already quoted. Cohen is skillful indeed in deploying this language, and if readers are able to accustom themselves to Laster's strung-out, stop/start way of summoning up those events that have culminated in this night at Carnegie Hall, they will surely find themselves enjoying the jokes, the deliberate or not-so-deliberate malapropisms, the puns, the occasional passages of real eloquence.
Some readers might balk at a novel that at first seems so determined to avoid "entertainment." (Laster, after all, himself seemingly interrupts the entertainment in order to berate his audience with his words, to get them to pay attention to his verbal cadenza and not just passively admire his musical one. At the same time, one could regard Laster as a kind of Catskill tummler, a stand-up comic who in discarding his role as Serious Artist discovers another talent for schtick.) But I have to say that ultimately I found Cadenza for the Schniedermann Violin Concerto to be abundantly entertaining, both as a "story" that is satisfying if deliberately circuitous and as an experiment in storytelling. Cohen does an impressive job at sustaining his experiment--to make this rambling kind of storytelling itself part of the "point" of the story--over 300+ pages. (The jokes and the fascinating tidbits of information help.) Cohen has succeeded in taking one man's headlong attempt at "expression" and, through relentless artifice, almost a parody of the will to express, created an aesthetically complex (and engaging, precisely because it is complex) work of fiction.