You may have heard that Joshua Cohen has a new book out this week. The Harper’s columnist’s fourth novel tells the story of a ghostwriter producing a tech wizard’s memoirs. In BOMB Magazine, Dan Duray sits down with Cohen, who talks about the book, the Bay Area and the cultural production of autism. Related: Johannes Lichtman on Cohen’s Four New Messages.
I am on a train to Paris reading Her Not All Her: On/with Robert Walser by Elfriede Jelinek, number 18 in the Cahier Series, translated by Damion Searls, with paintings by Thomas Newbolt. “Writers, not unlike generals, often make the most tedious preparations before they proceed to the attack and bravely deliver your battles. Don’t leave your weapons at home all the time! Are you doing it on purpose? From the art of poetry war has arisen: People were bored by what they knew but they didn’t want to ask anything either. They wanted to answer right off. But there’s one thing they know for certain: Always conquer new ground! That’s what it means to be an artist!”
Sometimes my life seems like an endless process of conquest; other times it feels like an interminable subjugation in exile. People often ask me, do you like it better here in London or in America. The only correct answer is “Stop asking me that stupid question.” When I’m not doing something for money, I read the new books that drift in from the homeland. The first one this year was A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, about his conquest of Berlin and various pilgrimages to Spain, Japan and Ukraine. The Berlin chapter is potently dense, the best thing written on that city’s colonization by American artists. The Spain bit is a buddy movie starring Tom Bissell in Danny Glover-like “I’m too old for this shit” mode. The Japan part has the absurdist quality of a Beckett monologue. And although I am undomesticated and don’t generally go in for family stuff, the resolution of daddy issues in the Ukraine section is comically and dramatically satisfying. The locations don’t matter in the end because you read Lewis-Kraus for his smooth prose style.
You read Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder for his smooth way with storytelling, an overvalued quality except when it’s done this well. Who thought the sad New York literary manchild genre could be reconquered to center its gaze not on a mirror but on a woman and who knew the best way to do that would be to filter it through a Catholic morality? This former altar boy didn’t, but amen, peace be with you, and also with you.
Storytelling is not the first thing you look for in a book by Joshua Cohen. You read him for his transgressions, his jokes, his puns, and his piles of similes: “introducing this Word into the story would be…like inviting friends over to my apartment for dinner then serving them individual portions of feces garnished with poems about how much I hate friends and the poetry would rhyme.” It makes you think: what’s worse, actual shit or shitty poetry? A silly blurb on Four New Messages compares Cohen’s last book Witz to a comet. The new one is more like a cluster of asteroids impacting the heartland: a big dust cloud and fossils ensue.
One of the many amazing things about Jim Praley, the narrator of Benjamin Lytal’s A Map of Tulsa, is that he finds humorlessness sexy. A Map of Tulsa seems to me the third major blow in a series of what-it’s-like-to-be-me-type novels, after Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, and that these books will be the litty thing the Obama administration era is remembered for. Lytal’s book has a bit more of a plot than the other two, and the plot involves a penthouse in a skyscraper, an oil fortune, a motorcycle accident, dancing in bars, taking pills, and having sex outside. But mostly it’s about walking around the city — your hometown, reconquered — and wondering what your destiny will be. You probably haven’t heard of this book because it doesn’t come out until April.
Now I have crossed through the Chunnel and I am going to go back to reading Elfriede Jelinek. Next year I plan to read all the posthumous works of Laura (Riding) Jackson.
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I am sitting in RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire listening to Joshua Cohen read from Four New Messages, his new book of short fiction published this summer by Graywolf Press (our review). The house is not exactly packed, but the small audience is rapt and leans forward to catch every word of the dense, twisty prose. As he reads an excerpt from “Sent,” the collection’s final story dealing with, among other things, amateur porn stars in Russia, a child wanders into the bookstore and sits down to read Pat the Bunny in the kids’ section. Cohen glances at her warily and reads on. Afterwards, the audience is rabid to talk framing devices, influences, and Eastern Europe.
At 32, Cohen is the prolific author of novels Witz, A Heaven of Others, and Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, as well as the short story collections Four New Messages, Bridge & Tunnel, Aleph-Bet: An Alphabet for the Perplexed, and The Quorum. His essays and reviews have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Tablet Magazine, and many more.
A few weeks after the reading, I spoke to him on the phone about the new book, the idea of literature as entertainment, and what the Internet is doing to our culture.
The Millions: Can you start by telling me a little bit about how Four New Messages came together? Did you always see it as a collection, or were you working on them individually, and then realized they were having a dialogue, after the fact?
Joshua Cohen: I’d finished a large novel and taken time off. When I began writing again, I began writing short, just to try and change my style, to write differently from how I’d written before. This happens between every book. All the fiction that emerged was — mediated. Dealt with the internet, or with capital’s intrusion, through the internet and other media, on “life” — or on the lives of various characters, all my generation/gender.
A few of these narratives grew longer. Of them, four grew better. Those comprise the book.
TM: I wanted to talk about the length thing, because obviously Witz is a long book. My question has two prongs. First, why more words rather than fewer? And second, when you’re writing something of length, like Witz, it pretty much guarantees that people aren’t going to finish it, or people are going to be intimidated by its length. Is that a consideration, when you sit down to write, that the length alone might discourage readers?
JC: The size of Witz was intended to communicate as much as the words on the page do — more than they do. I had in mind a book that was going to sit on a shelf, lie playing dead across the shelf and depress you for failing it — the meaning you’re missing being the meaning the world’s missing — in clearest terms: the culture destroyed with the Holocaust. It was designed to be a repository, a reliquary for the corpus of Jewry — European Jewry.
Conversely, the sizes/lengths of these messages — of these fictions written with speed, to be read at speed — might communicate impatience, or dodging, darting, slyness. I can’t conceive of any justification for writing an 800-page book about the internet. The internet’s certainly revolutionized our lives economically, sexually, blah blah. But only real cultures deserve real monuments. Technologies do not.
TM: I’ve been thinking a lot lately of literature as entertainment. Do you think writers have an obligation to entertain their readers to an extent? Or is it the opposite, that it’s the writer’s job to get at something meaningful, an idea.
JC: I’m not quite sure what entertainment means. You might be able to get a consensus about what constitutes the entertaining on a more popular level — the more primetimey TV, or movies by Judd Apatow. But — check the news — a lot of people are entertained by smashing their own testicles with hammers. I’m not sure any normative or common definition exists, I’m saying. As for a writer’s obligation, a writer has no obligation besides writing, or not writing — to the Word and its absence both. My own is a cabinetmaker’s approach that might also be akin to journalistic practice, or to composing music, or painting and sculpting. The obligation is to the workshop, where you show up every day and try. If it’s good, you publish, if it’s bad, you improve it, but you continue — you burn the nights — to try. That work, and nothing but that work, is the only constant — becomes the very consistency of life.
TM: You sometimes get compared to David Foster Wallace and Pynchon and writers like that. Who would you name as writers who influence your work?
JC: Certainly there are authors I’m closer to, certain books and traditions closer to my own. So I have to conclude it’s either that the reviewers who review me don’t know their dead Yiddish poets, or they do know their dead Yiddish poets but choose not to mention any so as not to confuse their editors, or the public. In a sense, though, they’re doing me a favor. Wallace/Pynchon is bad criticism, good publicity.
Also: Most readers read for face, for surface — and not multiple times, but once. A cohort of writers whose sentences sound or look the same might have read each other, sure, or they might just have lived in the same language, or country, at the same time.
As for namedropping influence — I’d rather not. Let’s just say all of Europe, mid-nineteenth century through Eurozone accession, also Jewish literature, in every language in which Jews have written.
TM: The final story in the collection, “Sent,” takes place in Russia. Can you talk about what your interest is in that part of the world?
JC: It’s a part of the world my family lived in for about 500 years, prior to 1942. Slavic culture formed my own. There are values, or were, inculcated under a succession of just inconceivably oppressive regimes (which must not be praised for having inculcated those values) — of humility/modesty, humor, pity, and a type of sacredness or holiness about the task of writing. Those stakes interest me more than any black and white photos — more than any literature.
TM: The collection deals a lot with the Internet and the toll it’s taking on society, but not in a stupid “the Internet is ruining our kids” type of way. What’s your take on the Internet?
JC: I mean, every age has been concussed by its own expansions (of curiosity), by way of contractions (changing media). Wires, wirelessness. From images reproduced on a page to images synched to sound broadcast into the home. Every era suffers its shock, or becomes an era by it. The internet is ours.
(But if we want a literature that reaches us somewhere south of our brains), we as a culture need to remember that information does not make literature, that information can destroy literature. We’ll have to mistrust not just that information but its access too, if we’re ever to live nearer to our dreaming.
TM: What are you working on now?
JC: A nonfiction book and a novel.
TM: Can you talk about those a little bit?
JC: The nonfiction is about attention, the fiction is about distraction. How about that?
Google Joshua Cohen and you’re immediately faced with a question: which Joshua Cohen do you want? Is it a) The political philosopher? b) The guy who started the website tubefilter, “Online video’s daily must-read”? Or c) the American novelist and writer of stories? In my case, the answer was c), but the process of choosing a person from multiple options, of pulling an identity from ten trillion lines of code, is at the core of Four New Messages. In Joshua Cohen’s new collection of long stories, the characters struggle to reconcile their physical existences with their online selves — struggle to cope with the effect the Internet has on their experience of the world.
The first story, “Emission,” which appeared in a recent issue of The Paris Review, is the best of the collection. (At a recent reading in San Francisco, Cohen himself suggested that “Emission” is in fact the worst story in the book because it is the safest, and that readers might want to skip it altogether. I respectfully disagree.) The plot follows a young drug dealer, Mono, who, one night, after delivering cocaine to some Princeton students, decides to snort a few rails himself. While under the influence, he makes the mistake of relating a very shameful sex story involving him and a girl he once found sleeping at a party. Later Mono learns he has been rejected for a job because of his reputation, and when he asks what’s wrong with his reputation, the employer tells him, “The internet…are you aware of the internet?” Mono Googles himself — a practice he generally avoids since he deems it “too depressing a venture” — and finds his sex story, with his full name attached to it, posted on the blog of one of the girls from the party. The post quickly goes viral and Mono’s name because synonymous with masturbating on a sleeping stranger. He spends the rest of “Emission” trying to get the story removed, which he tragically learns is a futile endeavor. As one character puts it, “the web’s like sweaty footwear — stuff lives in there forever.”
“Emission” not only features an exciting and somewhat sickening plot, but it is also a very heavily (and effectively) framed story. Mono is not the narrator — instead we get the viewpoint of a young businessman recounting the time he met Mono at a biergarten in Berlin. At one point we see the narrator relating how Mono told him about the time Mono read a blog post in which the blogger recounts the story of when she went to a party and heard her drug dealer tell a story about the time he masturbated on a sleeping girl. (You may have to draw a diagram to calculate the number of devices separating the reader from the action.) The frame here is used to create ambiguity: Was Mono’s name really ruined by a blogger? Or did he himself haplessly post the story on the Internet — he does seem like that kind of guy — and later reconstruct his life’s narrative to give it a villain? Because of the distance between the protagonist and the telling of the story, we’re left with doubt, a condition that ravages characters throughout the collection.
Cohen is an incredibly intelligent and prolific author (at the age of thirty-one, Four New Messages is his seventh book) who is frequently compared to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. As part of the last generation to grow up before the popularization of the Internet, but to go to college post-.com, he seems well equipped to write about the anxieties of net-surfing information junkies. Throughout the book, his characters make assertions that feel nauseatingly familiar. One woman experiences “nervousness at traveling to an unknown, possibly even an undatabased restaurant.” It’s as if after spending so much time online, these people are afraid of uncharted human experience. As one character says, “That’s the problem with the screen…You’re always one step, but the crucial step, removed.” It’s also the advantage: you’re never too close to danger.
But despite Cohen’s wonderful ability to articulate the anxieties of the internet age, sometimes he gets so deep into syntactic and structural experiments that he forgets about the physical world altogether. Given the preoccupations of his characters, this is almost certainly an intentional choice, but it’s still, at times, a frustrating one. “McDonald’s” follows an indecisive writer as he agonizes over whether or not to include the word “McDonald’s” in a story he’s writing. The piece has half-page long sentences that feature very little but obsessive chronicling of Internet searches like “What’s wrong with my story?” and while this discursive portrayal of writerly interiority is incredibly realistic, it also makes for tedious reading.
The last and longest story of the collection, “Sent,” is a perplexing part-folktale, part-fictional reportage about a young man who goes to eastern Europe to write about girls from small villages who are being used in American pornography. The narrator reflects, “We all grew up with this crap, we didn’t know anything else — like Dad did, who masturbated to paper, to brownpaperwrapped magazines.” For the narrator’s generation, “We can just press a button and, naked lady…Point, click, penetration, it penetrates, it rewires your brain.” While the story is filled with Cohen’s trademark awareness of the effects of the Internet on our consciousness, the plot is obscured by constant point of view shifts: “I am a woodsman. A forester. No. You are a woodsman. You are a forester. No. Shake the tree. Uproot the roots. He, yes, he is a woodsman.” The confusion of reading “Sent” probably mirrors the confusion of the young narrator as he travels through real villages and interviews real people he’s seen having sex through the protective lens of the Internet. But it’s still a trying, and in the end, not very satisfying read.
Charles Baxter once wrote in an afterword to a collection of flash fiction, “These are tunes for the end of time, for those in an information age who are sick of data.” This was in 1986. I wonder what he would have to say about the characters in Four New Messages.
New this week is Joshua Cohen’s Four New Messages, while John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black) is out with Vengeance. Also new on shelves: Aftermath, a memoir by Rachel Cusk; Peter Heller’s post-apocalyptic debut novel The Dog Stars; David Gillham’s novel of WWII Berlin, City of Women; and In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner’s novel set in the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge. Out in paperback are Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son and Edie Meidav’s Lola, California.