It’s hard to write well about the Internet. This is partly, as many have noted, because life on a screen is already mediated, so to write about these corners of twenty-first-century existence is to attempt, in some ways, a representation of a representation. But it’s also because time spent online is, for many of us anyway, accompanied by sometimes paralyzing levels of self-consciousness. I’m not the first to note that the Internet tends to foreground likeability – hits, views, retweets, hat tips – over all other values. Sometimes I think about posting a status update on Facebook. Then I question what I’m trying to get out of that status update. Validation? Love? Reassurance? What kind of response will it look like I’m looking for? How will colleagues from two jobs ago, scrolling through their news feeds in their ergonomic work chairs, feel about this hypothetical status update? Maybe a little irritated? Faintly contemptuous? Even a seemingly innocuous post, the blandest of links, will reveal something about me, expose me to the judgments of what Joshua Cohen, in one of the stories in his new collection Four New Messages, calls the “commentariat.” Perhaps it’s best not to write anything at all.
What impresses me about Cohen’s Four New Messages is its willingness to risk being unlikeable in service of the goal of genuine conversation – conversation that doesn’t consist only of lines cribbed from a “7 Ways to Ace Your Next Interview” blog post. The stories that make up this collection are preoccupied with conversations, with acts of communication and message-sending. In several, the narrator positions himself as speaking directly to a specific subject: his dad; the main character in a story he’s attempting to write; or, most often, and at the most uncomfortable of moments, his mom. In “McDonald’s,” for example, the narrator agonizes over which restaurant to have the fictional protagonist of his story visit:
Ronald Ray watched the backlit logos approach, every craven incarnation, every franchise of desire. So many amenities yet so many the same, so many ways to condemn them, yet all of them the same. Too many few choices: which restaurant I should go to? what to order at which restaurant he should go to? which suit to wear or wash? having skipped breakfast should I skip lunch too to write? I know nothing impresses you, Mom.
All of the stories involve, to some extent, a narrator’s struggle with the things that interfere with or prevent conversation: the intrusion of brand names into every corner of our existence (“McDonald’s”), the distancing effects of porn (“Sent”), the way blogs lend themselves to anonymous libel (“Emission”). In addition to these obstructions, there are the aforementioned thickets of self-doubt one has to bushwhack before saying anything at all. All of the stories deal in some way, in content and form, with the kind of anxiety that comes from social media, the perpetual high-school-yearbookness of it. In “The College Borough,” a middle-aged narrator recounts the story of a college creative writing teacher who tasked his students with constructing a physical building. Speaking of one of his fellow former students, Sora, the narrator says:
[The workshop teacher] made her our glazier, and wouldn’t you know it, she’s become our own home’s window woman, and is even developing an exclusive make of energysaving window that reduces heating costs, has a screen that can be raised only from the top sash as a child safety feature, and, I remember, Dem was just telling me – Dem’s in touch with her from the gym and PTA – that it recently won some national design award. Congrats, Sora! Let’s catch up sometime!
Those last two sentences kill me. (Cohen has a knack for this, making paragraphs that lead to final sentences that I want to return to over and over.) These particular sentences feel like the next in a lineage of fiction that would include David Foster Wallace’s five-sentence story “A Radically Condensed History of Post-Industrial Life.”
Many reviews of Cohen mention Wallace, and there are undeniably similar thematic concerns as well as similarly complex sentences and shifts between high and low diction. But the Yiddish-inflected rhythms and frequent shifts and pivots of Cohen’s sentences remind me more of early Leonard Michaels or, occasionally, Gordon Lish. There’s a kinetic energy here that I don’t know how to describe other than life-affirming.
In an essay titled “Reading: The Most Dangerous Game” (collected in Sea Battles on Dry Land), Harold Brodkey writes of “folk art” (his term for art that serves “the democratic necessity of making our lives interesting to us”) that it can be “shaming.” But, he adds, “so is much in life, including one’s odor giving one’s secrets away (showing one’s nervousness or one’s lechery), but it is better to do that than live messageless and without nerves or desire.” Shame is what Cohen and his narrators wrestle with, judo-style. In the final story, the narrator speaks of pedestrians who pass with “their very lives averted.” These stories don’t avert. They are not always easy to read. They are invitations to places we might be reluctant to go. They want, like the best conversations, to disturb you a little, to leave you changed.