Joshua Cohen’s collection of novellas, Four New Messages (Graywolf, 208 pp., $14.00), opens with a story called “Emission.” The accuracy with which the author chronicles the hysterics of online communication is enough to give one pause. His portrayal is both embarrassing and revolting. The story, which was first published in The Paris Review last year, is about a cocaine runner named Richard Monomian (“Mono”) who delivers drugs to students at Princeton. A kind person, Mono often strikes up conversations with his clients, who don’t regard him as an actual person but simply as their dealer guy. They treat him with contempt. “I don’t care what you think about the Yankees’ outfield,” one customer says, “I just want my drugs.” Mono does not learn; he continues to see himself as a real person, and that’s what gets him into trouble. He spends a night partying with some Princeton students. Partying conversations, and their bleakness, are another thing Mr. Cohen captures all too well. It makes you queasy to read it. If you have ever had one of those nights, then you have heard the running jokes. You have sat and listened to people say things, as is the case in Mr. Cohen’s story, like, “There was this girl I used to go out with who was the transitional girlfriend of” some movie star.
Richard Monomian tells the party-goers a story about ejaculating into the hand of a woman who was passed out at a party. The next day, one of the attendees blogs the story, and it goes viral. Richard hires a “paraparalegal,” whom he finds online (naturally), after searching multiple strings of words summing up his predicament. After trying various traditional means of lawyerly intimidation and amateur hacking, the paraparalegal hires an Albanian man to find the woman who wrote the post and intimidate her. It goes wrong, the woman is put in a coma, and Richard—arriving at his apartment only to find it surrounded by the police—flees for Prague.
It’s a very good story. It shouldn’t be the case, but somehow, Internet memes are relatively unchartered territory in fiction. In Mr. Cohen’s hands, a meme is a matter of life and death, because he goes from the reality we all know—the link, the click—to the one we tend to forget: the human.
This is a theme Mr. Cohen has hinted at before. His previous book, 2010’s Witz, was a 900-page novel about the last Jew on Earth, whose relative otherness also goes viral, so to speak; he turns into a cult hero and people start doing things like drinking beer called “He-brew.” The world’s subsequent rapid conversion to Judaism starts out as superficial and funny but, as in “Emission,” things quickly get heavy: those who refuse to become one of the Chosen People are sent to death camps at a place called Whateverwitz.
Witz is a maze of multi-page sentences and distorted language that slowly fades into a tangle of puns and neologisms. By the end, the sentences feel more like obstacle courses. It’s appropriate, then, that the second and third stories in the new collection—“McDonald’s” and “The College Borough”—directly address the problems of writing itself. In “McDonald’s,” previously published in Triple Canopy, the narrator, who presents himself as the writer of the text, sitting frustrated in his former room in his childhood home, explains that he has a story going. In this story he is working on, a woman has been stabbed and is writhing in a pool of her own blood in a car being driven by her boyfriend. The narrator of the story (the “writer” of the story about the man in the car) explains that he (the narrator) is having a problem, because there is a certain word he does not want to say.
He brings the problem up with his father, who is drinking wine and who asks all kinds of questions about the man and the woman in the car. Some of them are good questions—“Chronology means you’re finally going to tell me what happened?”—and some are silly and point out the arbitrariness of certain literary conventions (on hearing that the stabber works construction, the father asks, “What kind of construction?”). Then the narrator, who does seem like a stand-in for Mr. Cohen, acknowledges that the dialogue with his father has been fictional all along, just another story, and begins to address, instead, his mother and proceeds to talk with her less about his story and more about his sorry, writer’s life. Now speaking as “I”, the narrator addresses the stabber, Ronald Ray, on a question he acknowledges his readers will consider unsophisticated and self-indulgent: whether or not he should just go ahead and say the word, which he finally does. His stabber had wanted a burger, but by now, all pretense dropped, or “dropped,” the writer—“I”—goes and says what I think is the word, “McDonald’s,” where he watches what life really is—nothing. Just people eating bad food.
“The College Borough,” which appeared recently in Harpers (where Mr. Cohen writes the “New Books” column) focuses on a writing class taught by a one-hit wonder who abandons workshop conventions in favor of an odd project: building a replica of the Flatiron Building. Each student’s weaknesses are addressed by his given job. The scatological poet is put in charge of plumbing. The novelist, who is imprecise—“sloppy with flashback and dream”—is put in charge of the steel girding. These parallels continue. Mr. Cohen writes, “Mesh was assigned the façade, that intricate, fripperant façade, only because the surfaces of his literary work were so terribly transpicious, so banally boring—simple declaratives rife with simple vocabulary. Plain. Unadorned.”
It is hard to read that sentence—and maybe it was hard for Mr. Cohen to write it. Those adjectives, employed with such derision, sum up a lot of the best work of many peoples’ literary heroes, including my own.
“Sent,” the final story, which was excerpted in Bomb magazine, begins with an account of the carving of a wooden bed. This bed passes through four generations and is regarded by each generation in a different way. The bed reaches our era, and it is used in a porn shoot.
At that point, Mr. Cohen changes tone entirely, focusing once more on the viral. He considers the many people who watch porn online. He writes about how our fathers looked at porn on paper, in secret, and hid it in closets. Now we have it out in the open, on computers, on phones; we click through stills to select videos of the most vulgar or bizarre acts, and all of this is ubiquitous enough to seem normal—even expected of girlfriends and one-night stands. The narrator thinks about the women in these 14-minute movies, their hopes (for traditional stardom outside the industry?) and the men who fund the videos, and their hopes (money, sex). The narrator returns to the women, the stars, who are not human but rather images that circle in his mind. The story contains a traditional narrative, for Mr. Cohen anyway. But the theme is once again communication online, and how we forget we are talking to—or in this case, jerking off to—people.
The issues Mr. Cohen’s fiction raises—the falseness of descriptive language, the silliness of character names and other bland necessities in fiction—focus less on narrative and more on the places where life is actually happening, what Buddhists call the gap, what Martin Amis described more eloquently as the moments spent peeling stickers from car windows. Mr. Cohen is ambitious. He is mapping terra incognita. But he is at his best when he puts aside the writer’s discursive thoughts and lets his characters simply be characters, saying things like, “I’ve had enough of this cracking crap—this password guess where you’re given 10 attempts at access and then the account’s frozen when you fail.”