Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Joshua Cohen, _Four New Messages_

LLL IS A long-time advocate of Joshua Cohen's fiction, so with the big new one (from a major publisher, too) just landed, it was high time we got around to this, published by the ever-reliable Graywolf in 2012.  Four longish short stories, the fourth virtually a novella.

What we noticed:

A couple have to do with the impact of the internet. "Emission" is about a drug dealer--or maybe more of a sub-dealer, as all he does is handle deliveries--who is plagued by a libelous story posted by an apparently popular blogger. The fourth and longest story, "Sent," is about the world of internet porn, specifically the made-in-the-former-Soviet-bloc kind, and its power over young men's minds. To this extent, the stories here are anticipatory of the focus of the new one.

Three seem to be about blocked writers. "Emission" has a frame story in which the drug dealer describes his difficulties to a young blocked writer who is in Berlin failing to finish his novel. The blocked writer in "McDonald's" is blocked because he has reached a point in the fiction he is composing where he wants to use the fast-food franchise named in the title as a setting, but has some deep inhibitions against both using its real name and inventing a transparent fictional name. The blocked writer in "The College Borough" hates his current gig of teaching creative writing in the Midwest until he hits upon the idea of having his students build an on-campus replica of the Flatiron Building.

The two above themes, taken together, indirectly call to mind DeLillo's Mao II, in which the fictional novelist Bill Gray wonders whether terrorists have completely surpassed novelists in their ability to reconfigure the collective imagination. Is there still something important for novelists to do? Is fiction paralyzed if it can neither name nor avoid naming McDonald's? The sub-literate blogger in "Emission" has more clout than most literary fiction writers; the replica of the Flatiron Building may be a symbol of the old complex mimetic realism novel, a kind of architectural folly that serves on purpose except satisfying the blocked writer's nostalgia--although the creative students do at least learn marketable skills, like roofing. Internet pornography, too, is a domain whose reach goes well beyond that of ambitious literary fiction.

What I'm really wondering about, though, is the disappearance of the Jewish themes and general yiddishkeit that were so much a part of Cohen's previous work, especially Witz. Maybe Witz took yiddishkeit as far as it could go? I find myself hoping traces linger in The Book of Numbers, though.  The title alone suggests that has to be some of it, at least--it's one of the books of the Torah, after all. We'll see.

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