Google Joshua Cohen and you’re immediately faced with a question: which Joshua Cohen do you want? Is it a) The political philosopher? b) The guy who started the website tubefilter, “Online video’s daily must-read”? Or c) the American novelist and writer of stories? In my case, the answer was c), but the process of choosing a person from multiple options, of pulling an identity from ten trillion lines of code, is at the core of Four New Messages. In Joshua Cohen’s new collection of long stories, the characters struggle to reconcile their physical existences with their online selves — struggle to cope with the effect the Internet has on their experience of the world.
The first story, “Emission,” which appeared in a recent issue of The Paris Review, is the best of the collection. (At a recent reading in San Francisco, Cohen himself suggested that “Emission” is in fact the worst story in the book because it is the safest, and that readers might want to skip it altogether. I respectfully disagree.) The plot follows a young drug dealer, Mono, who, one night, after delivering cocaine to some Princeton students, decides to snort a few rails himself. While under the influence, he makes the mistake of relating a very shameful sex story involving him and a girl he once found sleeping at a party. Later Mono learns he has been rejected for a job because of his reputation, and when he asks what’s wrong with his reputation, the employer tells him, “The internet…are you aware of the internet?” Mono Googles himself — a practice he generally avoids since he deems it “too depressing a venture” — and finds his sex story, with his full name attached to it, posted on the blog of one of the girls from the party. The post quickly goes viral and Mono’s name because synonymous with masturbating on a sleeping stranger. He spends the rest of “Emission” trying to get the story removed, which he tragically learns is a futile endeavor. As one character puts it, “the web’s like sweaty footwear — stuff lives in there forever.”
“Emission” not only features an exciting and somewhat sickening plot, but it is also a very heavily (and effectively) framed story. Mono is not the narrator — instead we get the viewpoint of a young businessman recounting the time he met Mono at a biergarten in Berlin. At one point we see the narrator relating how Mono told him about the time Mono read a blog post in which the blogger recounts the story of when she went to a party and heard her drug dealer tell a story about the time he masturbated on a sleeping girl. (You may have to draw a diagram to calculate the number of devices separating the reader from the action.) The frame here is used to create ambiguity: Was Mono’s name really ruined by a blogger? Or did he himself haplessly post the story on the Internet — he does seem like that kind of guy — and later reconstruct his life’s narrative to give it a villain? Because of the distance between the protagonist and the telling of the story, we’re left with doubt, a condition that ravages characters throughout the collection.
Cohen is an incredibly intelligent and prolific author (at the age of thirty-one, Four New Messages is his seventh book) who is frequently compared to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. As part of the last generation to grow up before the popularization of the Internet, but to go to college post-.com, he seems well equipped to write about the anxieties of net-surfing information junkies. Throughout the book, his characters make assertions that feel nauseatingly familiar. One woman experiences “nervousness at traveling to an unknown, possibly even an undatabased restaurant.” It’s as if after spending so much time online, these people are afraid of uncharted human experience. As one character says, “That’s the problem with the screen…You’re always one step, but the crucial step, removed.” It’s also the advantage: you’re never too close to danger.
But despite Cohen’s wonderful ability to articulate the anxieties of the internet age, sometimes he gets so deep into syntactic and structural experiments that he forgets about the physical world altogether. Given the preoccupations of his characters, this is almost certainly an intentional choice, but it’s still, at times, a frustrating one. “McDonald’s” follows an indecisive writer as he agonizes over whether or not to include the word “McDonald’s” in a story he’s writing. The piece has half-page long sentences that feature very little but obsessive chronicling of Internet searches like “What’s wrong with my story?” and while this discursive portrayal of writerly interiority is incredibly realistic, it also makes for tedious reading.
The last and longest story of the collection, “Sent,” is a perplexing part-folktale, part-fictional reportage about a young man who goes to eastern Europe to write about girls from small villages who are being used in American pornography. The narrator reflects, “We all grew up with this crap, we didn’t know anything else — like Dad did, who masturbated to paper, to brownpaperwrapped magazines.” For the narrator’s generation, “We can just press a button and, naked lady…Point, click, penetration, it penetrates, it rewires your brain.” While the story is filled with Cohen’s trademark awareness of the effects of the Internet on our consciousness, the plot is obscured by constant point of view shifts: “I am a woodsman. A forester. No. You are a woodsman. You are a forester. No. Shake the tree. Uproot the roots. He, yes, he is a woodsman.” The confusion of reading “Sent” probably mirrors the confusion of the young narrator as he travels through real villages and interviews real people he’s seen having sex through the protective lens of the Internet. But it’s still a trying, and in the end, not very satisfying read.
Charles Baxter once wrote in an afterword to a collection of flash fiction, “These are tunes for the end of time, for those in an information age who are sick of data.” This was in 1986. I wonder what he would have to say about the characters in Four New Messages.