Joshua Cohen’s Four New Messages

Four New MessagesJoshua Cohen is the soon-to-be-widely-known author of seven published works, including an 800-page novel and three short story collections. His writings have appeared in HarpersThe New York TimesThe London Review of Books and The Paris Review – pretty much every publication or periodical that matters to young fiction writers. And, at 32 years old, notwithstanding his prolific output, he is still a “young fiction writer.” To an aspiring writer, discovering a successful young author born in your decade with seven published works to his name is like waking up to discover your first grey hair or wrinkle. I went through a range of reactions, including anger (“Damn him!”) and denial (“He can’t be that good”) to making various excuses for his success (“Mailer, Roth, Bellow, Salinger…what is it with brilliant Jewish writers? Perhaps it has to do with heritage, or early focus on studying scripture? Maybe it’s genetic, or just some cosmic reparation for millenia of persecution?”). All of this before reading a word of his latest collection of short stories, Four New Messages.

The title gives some hint to the work’s major theme: identity in an internet culture. His first and most straightforward story, “Emission,” begins with a young fiction writer, described in terms that hit too close to home for my liking (“my being a writer of fiction was itself just a fiction and because I couldn’t finish a novel and because nobody was paying me to live the blank boring novel that was my life, I was giving up”) meeting a fellow American, Richard “Mono” Monomian, in a Berlin bar, where the newcomer begins to describe the mortifying series of events that led him to flee his country in search of a new identity. In brief: he made the ill-advised mistake of ejaculating onto a sleeping woman at a college party, and the further mistake of recounting this story, under the influence of cocaine, to a young Princeton undergraduate, who promptly outs him on her blog, leading family, friends, future employees and anyone who bothers to Google him to discover his indiscretion.

“Emission” is the most refined of the bunch, and the least experimental in composition and narrative, but it was the final story, “Sent,” that sold me on this young writer. Mixing fable, gritty realism and nightmare, “Sent” surveys pornography in the age of broadband, giving us a glimpse of the producer, the performer and the user that oscillates in tone between tragic and hilarious, and is carefully handled, at all times, by Cohen’s deft prose. You can almost pick memorable phrases at random: “when her mother by the year 2006 had gotten sick with a hardness and rigidity like wood in her stomach and then in her breasts and regularly she had to go to the hospital again sunk in grass faded thick and long like the hair she lost and the weight and her color, this time not to give birth again, not to foal even her tumors, but only to die…” or “And the parents of the children became grandparents and they too were falling apart – like beds themselves, sleepers fit for the coffin’s lid with splintered limbs and the feeling of an ax pain brought down between chin and chest, termite infestation in the liver.”

In response to the expected comparisons with other post-modern masters like Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, Cohen has been brusque: “Good publicity, bad criticism.” And yet I have to – respectfully – disagree with him. His sense of humor owes much to both (a brief aside about chlamydia-infested squirrels, in particular, brought Wallace to mind) and despite the numerous Hebraic writers he names as influences, his style is distinctly post-modern, separating the reader from the principal action of the narrative through intermediary voices and multiple narrators. If the comparison is one that makes him uncomfortable, I’m afraid it won’t cease to be made any time soon. And if Four New Messages is representative of the kind of writing and thinking he is capable of, it would be wise to begin reading him now, because Cohen will be a fixture of the literary scene for some time to come.