I am sitting in RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire listening to Joshua Cohen read from Four New Messages, his new book of short fiction published this summer by Graywolf Press (our review). The house is not exactly packed, but the small audience is rapt and leans forward to catch every word of the dense, twisty prose. As he reads an excerpt from “Sent,” the collection’s final story dealing with, among other things, amateur porn stars in Russia, a child wanders into the bookstore and sits down to read Pat the Bunny in the kids’ section. Cohen glances at her warily and reads on. Afterwards, the audience is rabid to talk framing devices, influences, and Eastern Europe.
At 32, Cohen is the prolific author of novels Witz, A Heaven of Others, and Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, as well as the short story collections Four New Messages, Bridge & Tunnel, Aleph-Bet: An Alphabet for the Perplexed, and The Quorum. His essays and reviews have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Tablet Magazine, and many more.
A few weeks after the reading, I spoke to him on the phone about the new book, the idea of literature as entertainment, and what the Internet is doing to our culture.
The Millions: Can you start by telling me a little bit about how Four New Messages came together? Did you always see it as a collection, or were you working on them individually, and then realized they were having a dialogue, after the fact?
Joshua Cohen: I’d finished a large novel and taken time off. When I began writing again, I began writing short, just to try and change my style, to write differently from how I’d written before. This happens between every book. All the fiction that emerged was — mediated. Dealt with the internet, or with capital’s intrusion, through the internet and other media, on “life” — or on the lives of various characters, all my generation/gender.
A few of these narratives grew longer. Of them, four grew better. Those comprise the book.
TM: I wanted to talk about the length thing, because obviously Witz is a long book. My question has two prongs. First, why more words rather than fewer? And second, when you’re writing something of length, like Witz, it pretty much guarantees that people aren’t going to finish it, or people are going to be intimidated by its length. Is that a consideration, when you sit down to write, that the length alone might discourage readers?
JC: The size of Witz was intended to communicate as much as the words on the page do — more than they do. I had in mind a book that was going to sit on a shelf, lie playing dead across the shelf and depress you for failing it — the meaning you’re missing being the meaning the world’s missing — in clearest terms: the culture destroyed with the Holocaust. It was designed to be a repository, a reliquary for the corpus of Jewry — European Jewry.
Conversely, the sizes/lengths of these messages — of these fictions written with speed, to be read at speed — might communicate impatience, or dodging, darting, slyness. I can’t conceive of any justification for writing an 800-page book about the internet. The internet’s certainly revolutionized our lives economically, sexually, blah blah. But only real cultures deserve real monuments. Technologies do not.
TM: I’ve been thinking a lot lately of literature as entertainment. Do you think writers have an obligation to entertain their readers to an extent? Or is it the opposite, that it’s the writer’s job to get at something meaningful, an idea.
JC: I’m not quite sure what entertainment means. You might be able to get a consensus about what constitutes the entertaining on a more popular level — the more primetimey TV, or movies by Judd Apatow. But — check the news — a lot of people are entertained by smashing their own testicles with hammers. I’m not sure any normative or common definition exists, I’m saying. As for a writer’s obligation, a writer has no obligation besides writing, or not writing — to the Word and its absence both. My own is a cabinetmaker’s approach that might also be akin to journalistic practice, or to composing music, or painting and sculpting. The obligation is to the workshop, where you show up every day and try. If it’s good, you publish, if it’s bad, you improve it, but you continue — you burn the nights — to try. That work, and nothing but that work, is the only constant — becomes the very consistency of life.
TM: You sometimes get compared to David Foster Wallace and Pynchon and writers like that. Who would you name as writers who influence your work?
JC: Certainly there are authors I’m closer to, certain books and traditions closer to my own. So I have to conclude it’s either that the reviewers who review me don’t know their dead Yiddish poets, or they do know their dead Yiddish poets but choose not to mention any so as not to confuse their editors, or the public. In a sense, though, they’re doing me a favor. Wallace/Pynchon is bad criticism, good publicity.
Also: Most readers read for face, for surface — and not multiple times, but once. A cohort of writers whose sentences sound or look the same might have read each other, sure, or they might just have lived in the same language, or country, at the same time.
As for namedropping influence — I’d rather not. Let’s just say all of Europe, mid-nineteenth century through Eurozone accession, also Jewish literature, in every language in which Jews have written.
TM: The final story in the collection, “Sent,” takes place in Russia. Can you talk about what your interest is in that part of the world?
JC: It’s a part of the world my family lived in for about 500 years, prior to 1942. Slavic culture formed my own. There are values, or were, inculcated under a succession of just inconceivably oppressive regimes (which must not be praised for having inculcated those values) — of humility/modesty, humor, pity, and a type of sacredness or holiness about the task of writing. Those stakes interest me more than any black and white photos — more than any literature.
TM: The collection deals a lot with the Internet and the toll it’s taking on society, but not in a stupid “the Internet is ruining our kids” type of way. What’s your take on the Internet?
JC: I mean, every age has been concussed by its own expansions (of curiosity), by way of contractions (changing media). Wires, wirelessness. From images reproduced on a page to images synched to sound broadcast into the home. Every era suffers its shock, or becomes an era by it. The internet is ours.
(But if we want a literature that reaches us somewhere south of our brains), we as a culture need to remember that information does not make literature, that information can destroy literature. We’ll have to mistrust not just that information but its access too, if we’re ever to live nearer to our dreaming.
TM: What are you working on now?
JC: A nonfiction book and a novel.
TM: Can you talk about those a little bit?
JC: The nonfiction is about attention, the fiction is about distraction. How about that?