In Thomas Pynchon’s V., some of the characters, Benny Profane in particular, engage in “yo-yoing,” an activity that involves going back and forth between two places for no real reason. A casual contest starts up wherein the competitors see who can yo-yo the farthest, normally won by those who fall asleep on the subway. In this vein, I would like to nominate Nathan Cohen from Adam Tipps Weinstein’s The Airship as the contest’s spiritual grandfather.
Like many yo-yoers, he doesn’t intend to break any records, he doesn’t intend to sail back and forth between Argentina and New York on the Vasari, he doesn’t intend to become another iteration of the Wandering Jew. The Airship shows us, however, that it’s rare for the Jews to get to stick around any particular place for very long (Spain and then Portugal in the fifteenth century are given as examples). The Pale of Settlement itself, which contained Cohen’s hometown (Bauska), had fluctuating borders, likely leading to more nomadism. And then Alexander II was assassinated and the people of Russia were left with a decision to make: find out who actually killed the emperor, or blame the Jews. The first option sounded way too hard, while the second was easy and had an expansive, nightmarish tradition attached to it. So the anti-Jewish riots began, leading to a massacre and then a subsequent escape by some of the Hebrews.
Cohen was one of the “lucky” ones, meaning he was able to flee the Pale of Settlement, board a ship with seven hundred other emigrants, and sail across the ocean in a cage so packed no one could sit down (not to mention the filth and excrement everywhere), until he finally found himself in a New World Jewish settlement: Moisesville, Santa Fe, Argentina. This doubling can be found throughout the book (one Jewish settlement to another, one massacre to another—the second being of Native Americans), showing us again and again how “outsiders” are treated, how the forces of “civilization” should actually be described with the word used for the Other: “savage.”
In Moisesville, Cohen worked on Dr. Emilio Solanet’s ranch for seven years, but decided his fortune was to be found in the United States; so he lit out for Florida. Cohen did not find his fortune in the U.S. of A. Instead, he ended up having a nervous breakdown and was later found sleeping in an abandoned warehouse in Baltimore, the only identification on him being his ship ticket from Argentina to New York on the Vasari. So, the authorities put him back on that ship. With no identification at all, Cohen now yo-yos back and forth between Argentina and New York, always disembarking in the hopes of being accepted by whatever country, always getting turned away to continue his seemingly permanent voyage.
I admit, I’m inclined to like books with absurd premises like this. But what do we do with it? One layer, the outer one, is an argument for the fact that immigrants make cultures richer, a la Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004) (though the styles of the two works are widely divergent, Tipps Weinstein tapping fabulism and magical realism, compared to Spielberg’s usual deal). Here, in 2021, that argument needs to be made again since the malignant, ancient complaint about foreigners taking our jobs and destroying our country has resurfaced with the usual freak-out level response. And Cohen, indeed, makes life better on the Vasari. For one, the sailors see him as a kind of good luck charm protecting them from the military conflicts brewing in the world that will lead to the Great War. Furthermore, after doing odd jobs around the ship, Cohen ends up creating the greatest work of art ever constructed on the Vasari—a hot air balloon made of found items.
Another layer is Tipps Weinstein’s use of spiritualism in The Airship. I admit, I am not a spiritual person. So when I read, at the beginning, “This is not a book. This is spiritualism,” although the premise sounded up my alley, I wondered if maybe this book was not for me. But I would argue that “spiritualism” here is actually a different way of looking at time. For one, the events of the novella are not presented chronologically, but rather in episodes and tangents. We are not asked, then, to follow a Freytagian plot, but instead we are to think about each chapter like a parable or fable. In fact, there are three chapters that are titled, simply, “A Fable,” that contain what I believe are historically accurate events, even though they sound unreal. The experience of reading The Airship, then, is not the high tension of a climactic work, but instead the serenity of meditation (the subtitle of the book is, after all, “Incantations”). Contrary to my completely unfair belief that spiritualism involves people who assign magic powers to crystals, Tipps Weinstein uses spiritualism to reprogram how we understand existence.
Finally, my favorite layer: Tipps Weinstein’s approach to history. Throughout we are presented with the horrors of history, the beauty of small moments, and the sublimity of life. The Airship apportions equal time to each of these, a tactic that, I believe, is explained in this paragraph:
Spying the light coming from Nathan Cohen’s bunk in the hayloft, gleaming through the wooden gates of the corrals, as caught in the long view of, say, a landscape painting, which has captured the Vasari steaming on ahead in the dead of night, one might be struck by Cohen’s tiny lamp, the ‘sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it,’ as the poet says. If one perseveres, eventually one loses interest in the ship entirely—that ‘black mass of something hovering in the center of the picture.’ Only that single point of illumination remains. As one begins to perceive, the light matters, because it is temporary. Soon it will disappear forever. As soon as one grows attached to the warm light heart, it slips from your grasp and then is gone.
In other words, Tipps Weinstein asks us why we should only focus on the ship (history), when we could also focus on the beauty of the moment and the ultimate knowledge that such moments are fleeting. Thus the small is every bit as important as the big. I would argue this is why we don’t get quite as much of Cohen as we would expect. After reading the synopsis of this book, I assumed by the end I would know Cohen in his absurd situation about as well as I know Josef K. in Franz Kafka’s The Trial. When I didn’t, I wondered if that was a mistake on the writer’s part, until I realized that feeling of loss, of absence is exactly the point. I have the unending cataract of history, but oh so very little of Cohen. So Tipps Weinstein gives us a new way to approach history, while reminding us of our current view of it (enormous and often horrific).
And whereas there are many more layers I could talk about (in a book that’s only 122 pages long), that pervasive feeling of absence as Nathan Cohen finally soars away from the Vasari (which Tipps Weinstein tells us will happen in the prologue, so that’s not a spoiler), that pervasive feeling of loss is what I’m left with. Seeing as how The Airship begins with the line, “A lived event is finite, concluded at least on the level of experience. But a remembered event is infinite, a possible key to everything that preceded it and to everything that will follow,” I know my memory of Cohen, my memory of The Airship will continue to float through my mind for as long as I can think.
The Airship: Incantations, by Adam Tipps Weinstein. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: FC2, February 2021. 122 pages. $16.95, paper.
Andrew Farkas is the author of The Big Red Herring (KERNPUNKT Press), Sunsphere (BlazeVOX [books]), Self-Titled Debut (Subito Press), and The Great Indoorsman (forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2022). He is a teacher at Washburn University and the fiction editor for The Rupture.