2:43 pm Aug. 8, 2012
“All of life is a struggle against people who want to destroy you, right?”
It was hard to tell how serious Joshua Cohen was being. He was standing between the drinks table and the bathroom at Powerhouse Arena speaking with me last night; the bookstore was hosting the launch of his latest book, a suite of novellas titled Four New Messages (Graywolf Press). It was also hard not to agree.
“You go to a bar, you go to a restaurant, and there’s food there that will probably kill you,” He continued. “Your friends have drugs that will hurt you. There’s free alcohol at this party that is probably not the best thing to be drinking as much as I am, and you know, but, but, but you have to embrace it all as informing something, because if you don’t then you get into an enormous self-monitoring system where you’re not really sure that you are where you want to be, and you're doing what you want to do when you want to do it. So you have to embrace everything as informative of your essence. Whether that is your writing, or yourself.”
That strategy seems to have worked well for Cohen. At just 31 he is the author of seven books, including the 800 page Witz, which earned him comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. He is also the New Books columnist at Harper's Magazine, where he succeeded Larry McMurtry.
A neat, compact man with perfectly circular glasses and a strong, steady voice, he presents, initially, as precocious, even a bit dour. A few minutes of conversation with him quickly dispel the latter impression. Asked to explain his impressive work ethic—Georgia Cool, the literary agent who sold Four New Messages (she is now a freelance copyeditor and proofreader) mentioned 12- to 14-hour work days.
"Profound abuse in childhood," Cohen deadpanned.
Cohen’s relationship to more traditional vices seemed applicable to his relationship with the Internet as well: it’s informative of his essence, but it doesn’t seem to have sapped him of his precious bodily fluids. To the contrary: it’s provided him with a wealth of material.
In “Emission,” the first of the Four New Messages, a low-level drug dealer named Richard Monomian finds his previously non-existent reputation ruined after he drunkenly reveals a shameful secret to a young woman, who then posts the story on her blog, from whence it goes viral. He makes a series of attempts to have her remove the story, each time with rising intensity and aggression.
Introducing “Sent,” the final novella, from which he then read, Cohen explained that it was about "one of the great conjunctions in our time: the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the rise of the Internet, resulting in full employment for young, mostly female—mostly young, mostly female Eastern European pornography talent." "Sent" documents a young American writer's journey East in search of one such young, female, Eastern European he's found on a pornography website; he ends up in a town populated by, as Cohen put it "every woman he's ever masturbated to." The comic premise, however, never quite escapes the pall of organized crime, sex trafficking, and the main character's bleak malaise.
The excerpt was a sharp evocation of the dissonances which are the inevitable result of our lives being split between the virtual and the real. It was also about a guy watching porn on his computer in a dingy motel room.
Perhaps because Cohen has steadily built a reputation, rather than bursting onto the scene, the launch was a casual affair. More a gathering of friends—Cohen seemed to know almost everyone present personally—than the overstuffed bash one would expect for the author of a book feted just last week in the New York Times by Dwight Garner.
After the reading, the idea of question and answer session was floated, then immediately and mercifully dropped. Instead, Cohen showed a short film—a book trailer of sorts—directed by Brian Spinks. Also titled “Emission,” it was elegant and evocative—there were scenes of night driving and shots of smoke billowing into the air. It starred Alex Karpovsky, a filmmaker and actor best known for his role as Ray on HBO's "Girls." Karpovksy, the picture of nonchalance, was also at the launch, and was singled out by Cohen as he introduced the film.
"He's the one over there checking his phone," Cohen said. Karpovsky looked up briefly from his phone and smiled at the audience.
Outside the event after the reading and film were done, a scrum of partygoers sipped white wine or rye whiskey and smoked. Cool recalled being drawn not to the often salacious subject matter of Cohen’s work, but to his language.
“His vocabulary obviously is a mess,” she said. She meant that as a compliment. “Like, extraordinary.” (In conversation, Cohen used several words that later needed to be looked up.)
She was particularly intrigued by his ability to play with the way "we take this new technology and apply old words to it.” The double entendres and mixed meanings created by this process are everywhere in Four New Messages, beginning with the title: Cohen insists on calling the works messages rather than stories or anything else, and in resonance emails and voicemails crop up everywhere in them. In the excerpt Cohen read, there was also, just for example, a brief bit about the coincidence of the words "keystroke" and "stroke.”
While his characters struggle with the tensions new technologies have created between virtual and real-world identities, off the page, Cohen seemed unconcerned.
“You realize,” he said to me after the reading, “that the physical circumstances of your life are the determining aspects of your life. And that outside of that physicality, any opinion of you, you would probably never [encounter it] in person.” That's what makes Four New Messages so arresting: its characters keep finding the Internet merging into their physical lives, figuring out what they give up and what they gain through it.
"It's the sense that one must acknowledge that, one must acknowledge the access and the privilege, but one must acknowledge at the same time the loss. And the ability to seem self-contained … self-generative. It's very difficult to know what you say is who you are. It's very difficult to know who you are."
Cohen himself tries not to take the Internet's swirl of bad vibes too much to heart. Still, he said, “if I met somebody who wrote something horrible about me in person I might have something to say.” He clarified, “There’s not really much point in throwing computers out windows. People out windows, however, is a different story.”
Cohen went back inside the store for a book signing, but it was short lived, and by 9:15, the party was moving on to a bar a few blocks away. At Cohen’s book party, if not in his books, people seemed happy to continue hanging out in real life.
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