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This Kind of Brilliance Shirks a Reductive Review Title
on February 2, 2013
On the very first page of Joshua Cohen’s latest book, a quartet of M to L size stories, he describes a writer's move from New York to Berlin and—in lieu of an exhaustive description of Berlin’s collective attitude towards working—beckons the reader to:
"Take a pen, write this on a paper scrap, then when you’re near a computer, search:
Alternately, you could just keep clicking your finger on that address until this very page wears out—until you've wiped the ink away and accessed nothing."
Much of this collection, like the present day, revolves around the realm of the online, and comes out on the other end having successfully reflected, refracted, re- and de-contextualized, poked, prodded, danced with and defenestrated this increasingly pervasive tool that—unlike any other tool to date, really—contains immense numerations of representational worlds upon (and within) worlds.
Now, much ink and pixel has been spilt on the subject of the Internet Age, in both fiction and non, and—to further illustrate the proliferation of shortened attention spans and a quicker and quicker inclination towards a dismissive "X is so yesterday’s trend"ness—it's tempting to issue a cynical yawn and eye roll and apply a series of fierce clasps of sarcasm-pinchers (i.e. "scare quotes") and remark something like 'Yet another book/article/etc that [cue bored-sarcastic voice] "Explores the all-pervasiveness of the internet and social media and how it’s shaped blablabla and changed our perceptions of blablabla and asks us to consider blablabla while also leaving room for blablabla." Yawn. Bla. Pssh. Etc.' And it's true that there's a lot of boring and derivative and irrationally fear-mongering commentary of this genus that is swarming the labyrinthine info-canals, but I submit that it is also true that there are diamonds in this beswarmed rough, and I place Four New Messages firmly in the glistening and durable gem pile.
The first and last stories are the most explicit about exploring the changing tides of social interaction and self-perception that have bent to the gravitational pull of the Internet Age, and the middle two, while including some casual references to online life, use these references in the same way any author makes mention of the things that are a part of their day to day living. Quothe the Wallace:
"I've always thought of myself as a realist. I can remember fighting with my professors about it in grad school. The world that I live in consists of 250 advertisements a day and any number of unbelievably entertaining options, most of which are subsidized by corporations that want to sell me things. The whole way that the world acts on my nerve endings is bound up with stuff that the guys with leather patches on their elbows would consider pop or trivial or ephemeral. I use a fair amount of pop stuff in my fiction, but what I mean by it is nothing different than what other people mean in writing about trees and parks and having to walk to the river to get water a 100 years ago. It's just the texture of the world I live in."
In each story Cohen tends to use metafictional tools, but often with more tact and aplomb of a subtler, more artful form than one might imagine when they immediately register the term "metafictional." Mostly, he points to a fictional writer/narrator who is mediating the story (the basic technique reminded me of David Aforequoted Wallace's multi-layered Matryoshka-narrators in Oblivion's "Another Pioneer" and, in general, my mind kept free-associating towards Girl with Curious Hair as a point of departure for these stories—not derivative of it by any means, but emanating broadly similar tuning fork vibrations, which is a very high compliment when coming from yours truly). He also drops in meta-nuggets like asides about the multiple choices he makes as a writer (and refers to the writer/reader as a sort of royal "we" on occasion, too) but they seem unobtrusive and glide along with the other layers of narrative just fine. (One abrupt aside I particularly liked that stopped me in my tracks—in a good way—was: "We will pause here to allow you to recite your pin numbers to yourself.") This basic observation is rather unimportant in all actuality, but I make mention of it mostly to get to the preemptive strike of a point that THE METAFICTIONAL CONCEITS ARE NOT THE POINT. This is basically something I've been harping on for a while, which is essentially that, if used to substantive ends, experimental/avant garde/metafictional techniques are just tools in the toolbox alongside things like proper spelling and grammar, metaphors and analogies, punctuation, italics, foreshadowing, etc, and need not be so readily dismissed as tired gimmicks and/or lame attempts at iconoclasm and/or desperate cries for attention (unless they are, which, yes, they certainly can be).
A few remarks on style: Cohen is "highly stylized" as they say. He has a real knack for tweaking normal uses of words and phrases into something evocative and clever and aesthetically interesting and pleasurable. He coins several neologisms and portmanteaus (shortlist of e.g.’s: assisterati, ATMized, kikeabilly, paragraphicules, rodentia, pornonym, pentaquel) and goes on controlled jags of ecstatic exposition and sometimes wonderfully congested prose of the sort that are right up my readerly-writerly alley.
The first story, "Emission," is narrated by a writer character whom I just assumed was a skewed stand-in of sorts for the actual author (despite the very first sentence of the story being, "This isn’t that classic conceit where you tell a story about someone and it’s really just a story about yourself.") while most of the story focuses upon a character he meets straightaway named Mono, a lower-end-of-the-mid-level drug dealer who shares an embarrassing sexual story about himself one night while dipping into his own supply of Columbia's finest chattiest substance with some customers. This story works its way into the ubiquitous electronic web and Cohen gives a dramatic and humorous glimpse (via the rather banal) into the information-multiplying/-mutating and permanence-seeking nature of the internet's double-edged sword of easy and instant access.
In "McDonald’s" a writer, again, is recounting a story that he's been working on to his father (and later on, his mother) and throughout this he is vehemently avoiding using the titular word, the name of the entity symbolized by the world's most recognizable corporate logo, while also making such obvious reference to it that the avoidance is clearly a lost battle from the beginning (it is the story's one word title after all). The story brilliantly captures the crossroads where cynicism, cynicism-about-cynicism, the desire to create unique and meaningful art while acknowledging the need to harness and deal with the most ubiquitous and ugly and banal things all collide and collude and tangle and fidget uncomfortably, etc. The final descriptions of then actually entering a Golden Arches clone I found to be compelling in a straightforward realist's kind of way—a melancholic meta-meditation on the great golden M and all that might well come uncoiling forth during such ruminations.
"The College Borough" really knocked my socks off. Again, it is writing about writing, but not in the manner of the usual suspects. This time the narrator is a former writer, whose most important transformation—a transformation of which the (strange and inventive) reasons and motivations behind are later revealed—comes to be when he (and the rest of his fellow writing students) gives up writing in exchange for something more concrete (e.g. "A writer can write "the room had a couch," or a writer can just give up writing, go out and drag a couch back into the room"), a united purpose—a purpose of which isn't revealed until the final, and rather haunting, sentence of the story. There's a central element of the story that linked itself in my mind to the replication of Manhattan in Blueprints of the Afterlife and Caden Cotard's crazed recreation of the same in an abandoned warehouse in the film Synecdoche, New York. To say much more of the plot would be to say too much.
"Sent" is a real doozy. The longest of the four messages, clocking in on my Kindle at 39% of the book. It's broken into two very much disconnected-seeming sections: I. The Bed and II. Moc. How the first really connects to the demarcated chunk that follows it is something I'd need a second read to possibly decipher in any remotely plausible way. The first involves a sort of older-than-time folktale that seamlessly merges into a woodcarving on a bed, which we then follow through several generations, until its grotesque demise. It's oddly compelling. First highlighted line about two pages in was, "Imagine you chopped open a tree and inside was a very small tree. That’s what it's like to be human. To be both conscious and conscious of one day not being—and so we seed another."
To briskly over-summate, the latter section mostly orbits around pornography and casts said phenomena in a rather (surely 99% deservingly) horrible light. However, as the final pages begin to close in, it becomes rather clear that the production and use and existence of pornography (especially in the hyper-driven-on-all-levels context of the internet) is simply used as a vehicle for driving a deeper point home about the growing presence of heavily computationally-mediated relationships between human beings, and it delivers in a way that very much captures "how the world acts on my nerve endings," quothe the Wallace. The whole thing, both discrete sections, is vividly and jarringly symbol-laden and one could spend a significant and enjoyable swath of time and energy unpacking its richly imagined details.
I often feel a bit of angst about the Internet Age, but it is counter-balanced by an undeniable love and gratitude for it as well. I think some of this has to do with shifting moods and outlooks that don’t necessarily have much to do with something as broadly defined as "technology" or "the internet." I turn to Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife to indirectly (but still directly) illustrate this point succinctly:
"Anytime things were going right for you, the future of the world seemed bright. Anytime they were going wrong, the imminent collapse of civilization was at hand. Can't you see how thoroughly you projected your own subjective vision of reality on the world?"
This is not (as one might errantly imagine) merely a book tsk-tsking the corrupt and lonely modern age—I absolutely doubt Cohen's any sort of deluded anarcho-primitivist—but nor does it want to simply lay down and passively be mowed over by Progress and Technology either. It’s a skeptical inquiry but also a kind of exuberant embrace and one that understands that technology is something that both moves and is moved by us--done so at times inelegantly and with unpredictable outcomes, well-intentioned and malevolent, reckless and cautious, with love and with pathos, but always collectively, whether we like it or not, as a Leviathan with perhaps too many heads, but one that is undeniably, irrevocably us.