Four New Messages

  • Review
By – June 20, 2012

These four mes­sages” all pon­der the rela­tion between art and life. The first has a famil­iar out­line: a non­de­script pro­tag­o­nist gets involved with ques­tion­able char­ac­ters, his mis­takes mul­ti­ply, and his sit­u­a­tion grows more dan­ger­ous and more des­per­ate. In Emis­sion” the dan­ger comes from blog posts rather than ran­som notes, and the plot hinges on elec­tron­ic traces rather than hand­writ­ing analy­sis, but oth­er­wise it is faith­ful to the con­ven­tions of its genre. We are left won­der­ing how long a not-so-inno­cent man can con­tin­ue to flee the con­se­quences of his decisions.

McDonald’s” takes the form of a self-ref­er­en­tial, Beck­ett-like inte­ri­or mono­logue. A frus­trat­ed writer relates a pulp-fic­tion sto­ry idea to his notion­al father while dri­ving down a high­way, then switch­es to explain­ing the details to his unseen moth­er, and ends up con­tem­plat­ing a cer­tain ubiq­ui­tous fast-food restau­rant whose name he can’t bring him­self to utter. The nar­ra­tor takes an idiot-savant plea­sure in obscure words — dro­mo­ma­ni­a­cal, drapeto­ma­nia, mogi­graphia — per­haps as com­pen­sa­tion for being unable to cre­ate any­thing more con­se­quen­tial than the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal warn­ing notices he writes at work. His imag­i­na­tion is as inef­fec­tu­al as his exis­tence.

A fish out of water, a Jew­ish writer from New York teach­ing in the hin­ter­lands, con­de­scends equal­ly to mid-Amer­i­ca and to bad writ­ing in The Col­lege Bor­ough.” He decides to cre­ate a bit of Man­hat­tan in his col­lege town, and instead of sto­ries he assigns his stu­dents to build a func­tion­al, full-scale repli­ca of the Flat­iron build­ing on a cam­pus play­ing field. It becomes his ulti­mate tri­umph, a greater achieve­ment for him and his stu­dents than their words could ever be.

Sent” begins like a folk­tale: a woods­man builds a bed in an unnamed coun­try that is Rus­sia a cen­tu­ry ago. In our time the bed is used in a porno­graph­ic video, which begins the real sto­ry, a quest by an Amer­i­can man to find a porn star named Tonya he is obsessed with. When he trav­els to Rus­sia to find her, he grad­u­al­ly los­es his ten­u­ous grasp on real­i­ty.

Joshua Cohen is not only a gift­ed nov­el­ist but also an astute crit­ic with an immense knowl­edge of world lit­er­a­ture. These thought-pro­vok­ing sto­ries reflect his deep aware­ness of the mech­a­nisms of fic­tion as well as his thor­ough engage­ment with the tex­tures of con­tem­po­rary life.

Read Joshua Cohen’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Pro­mowork: A Nec­es­sary Evil


Ten Ques­tions for Joshua Cohen

by Bob Gold­farb

In its review of Four New Mes­sages the New York Times said of Joshua Cohen, he’ll make you want to be an angel investor in his stuff. What’s a book but a pub­lic offer­ing? You’ll want to be in on the ground floor.” Jew­ish Book Worlds Bob Gold­farb asked him about his work.

Bob Gold­farb: You’ve been com­pared to David Fos­ter Wal­lace and Thomas Pyn­chon. Can a con­tem­po­rary writer avoid the anx­i­ety of influ­ence?
Joshua Cohen: Pyn­chon I thought a lot about in my late-ish teens; Wal­lace, though, nev­er gave me the howl­ing fan­tods” — I was too young (b. 1980) to know to cheer the 90s revolt against lit­er­ary blank­ness and, by the time I began read­ing him, in the ear­ly oughts, I was liv­ing in Europe and more sus­cep­ti­ble to that edu­ca­tion. Wal­lace was always much too direct, too straight, for me (the con­cerns, not the style). He nev­er talked out of the side of his mouth. His irony was not mine — was too goy­ish­er, to put it blunt­ly. … No one has ever evad­ed influ­ence, or anx­i­ety — in or out of books.

BG: Is that hard­er for a writer who is also a crit­ic?
JC: Crit­i­cism just pays the bills, but fic­tion remains indebt­ed – to both fic­tion AND crit­i­cism.

BG: You some­times write in a very ver­nac­u­lar voice. How much of that is ven­tril­o­quism or social cri­tique or satire, and how much is it an exten­sion of your own per­son­al­i­ty?
JC: Why can’t my own per­son­al­i­ty be one of ventriloquism/​social cri­tique? The more voic­es I write, the less I’m sure I exist at all.

BG: You also deploy an enor­mous vocab­u­lary with lots of words nev­er heard in con­ver­sa­tion. How do you pic­ture your read­ers react­ing to them?
JC: I don’t con­sid­er a reader’s reac­tion to any­thing — I con­sid­er my own. When I encounter an unfa­mil­iar word, I fol­low the advice of Reb Spiegel, fifth grade, Hebrew Acad­e­my of Atlantic Coun­ty: Dick. Shun. Airy” (the class loved that gag, he loved that the class loved it). I might point out that dick­shu­nairies are more avail­able, and more use­ful, than they were in 1990.

BG: Your writ­ing is some­times called post-mod­ern” or exper­i­men­tal.” Is that mean­ing­ful? Is it accu­rate?
JC: To me, post­moder­ni­ty can only mean an aware­ness of the antiq­ui­ty of the tech­niques of the art called Mod­ernist (which, the peri­od­i­cals remind me, has earned a cap­i­tal let­ter). As for exper­i­men­tal—ridicu­lous. My books test noth­ing. I have no hypoth­e­sis and, cer­tain­ly, no con­clu­sion. The term, if only for purification’s sake, would be bet­ter applied to the shal­low main­stream. The exper­i­ments might be the fol­low­ing: How many com­ing-of-age, or par­ent-dying-of-can­cer, mem­oirs can be writ­ten? How many times can read­ers be expect­ed to step into the same stream twice?

BG: Four New Mes­sages sounds dystopi­an much of the time. Are you writ­ing about a fic­tive world, report­ing what you see around you, or send­ing a mes­sage?
JC: I’m send­ing a mes­sage that says: 1) this is what sur­rounds me, 2) this is fic­tion, 3) I have no mes­sage, and 4) (the cur­tain line of the book) my mes­sage has been sent.

BG: You write very con­vinc­ing­ly about mar­gin­al, off-kil­ter peo­ple. Do you have any inter­est in char­ac­ters who are suc­cess­ful in con­ven­tion­al ways like hav­ing mon­ey, sta­tus, and pow­er?
JC: I have inter­est in all peo­ple and all char­ac­ters. I’m not sure I sub­scribe to your con­ven­tions. I, for exam­ple, have no mon­ey but, to some peo­ple, some sta­tus and some pow­er. I know — I am relat­ed to — peo­ple who have some mon­ey but lim­it­ed sta­tus and lim­it­ed pow­er. I think what you’re talk­ing about is some­thing like what keeps wires work­ing—insu­la­tion. I am most inter­est­ed in peo­ple and char­ac­ters who are, more or less, psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly unin­su­lat­ed—frayed, the cop­per all askew. Richard Mono­mi­an, the anony­mous nar­ra­tor of McDonald’s,” the poly­ony­mous nar­ra­tor of Sent,” Mau­ry Green­er of The Col­lege Bor­ough” — they can’t help but con­tribute to the sta­t­ic.

BG: Writ­ing can be a kind of imi­ta­tio Dei, cre­at­ing some­thing from noth­ing. By exten­sion, does the act of cre­ation impose any moral respon­si­bil­i­ty on an author?
JC: I believe it does — a moral or eth­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty not to read­ers or char­ac­ters or plots but to myself as author (authors are the true heroes of their books). This respon­si­bil­i­ty — to assert that I am the writer of this book, that thou shalt have no oth­er writ­ers or books before me or this, that thou shalt not con­fuse the graven fic­tion with grave real­i­ty or grave real­i­ty with graven fic­tion, that I retain all copy­right, along with the right to work six days and rest the sev­enth or to work only on the sev­enth and stay drunk smok­ing in bed for six, etc. — IS my respon­si­bil­i­ty to read­ers, char­ac­ters, plots. I learned this not from Deuteron­o­my but from Hen­ry James, Nabokov.

BG: You’re in the mid­dle of a book tour. Do your audi­ences ever sur­prise you, either by who they are or what they ask you about?
JC: By who they are? No. I’m big with the oxy­gen tank/​nasal can­nu­la set. Jews. Women. The two demo­graph­ics that still buy books (read: read). By what they ask? Occa­sion­al­ly. At the 92nd Street Y, after an event with Adam Kirsch and Ruth Franklin, a man approached — oxy­gen tank/​nasal can­nu­la — to ask, are you the type of young writer always liv­ing in Brook­lyn nowa­days?” I told him, I live in Man­hat­tan.” Not always but nowa­days. He said, I haven’t spent an hour in Brook­lyn since 1976.” As he turned to leave I asked, you haven’t been to the air­port?” He said, over his shoul­der, JFK’s in Queens.”

BG: Much of your oth­er work is overt­ly Jew­ish in a way these sto­ries are not, touch­ing on Jews and Euro­pean cul­ture in Caden­za for the Schnei­der­mann Vio­lin Con­cer­to, Israelis and Pales­tini­ans in A Heav­en of Oth­ers, and most­ly recent­ly Witz. What would you rec­om­mend to a Jew­ish read­er who doesn’t yet know your work?
JC: A Heav­en of Oth­ers is the short­est, most trans­par­ent. I’m glad — trau­ma­tized — its pol­i­tics haven’t aged. Caden­za is, for­give me, the fun­ni­est. It’s also my New York book, and I wish it had more read­ers here at home. Witz—there’s not much to say (that the book itself doesn’t say). I would be flat­tered if it were still read in a decade. But the best edi­fi­ca­tion of that book would be a body of crit­i­cism tugged from its rib or, final­ly, the eschaton.

But I guess what I’d rec­om­mend to a Jew­ish read­er who hasn’t yet read me is the will, or wills, of Men­achem Mendel Schneer­son, the sev­enth and last Lubav­itch­er Rebbe: http://​men​tal​blog​.com/​2005​/​02​/​w​i​l​l​s​-​o​f​-​l​u​b​a​v​i​t​c​h​e​r​-​r​e​b​b​e​-​m​e​n​a​c​h​e​m​.html

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Addi­tion­al Titles by Joshua Cohen

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