Joshua Cohen is just 32, but he already has an impressive publishing history, and he is extending his reach with Four New Messages, a collection of four stories out now on the venerable Graywolf Press. The “messages” in Four New Messages include a lot of metafiction, a hefty dose of wit, and even some surprisingly tender language in unexpected places.
The collection begins with “Emissions”, which is the title of a blog kept by a character named Em. It’s also a pun on the idea of sent messages and of—well, ejaculation—as the story proves when the narrator is ousted online for masturbating while Em is sleeping. Though “Emissions” is the first story in the collection, it’s the weakest, with underdeveloped characters and a questionable story-within-a-story architecture wherein the real story is told after a page of musings by an insignificant narrator:
“This isn’t that classic conceit where you tell a story about someone and it’s really just a story about yourself. My story is pretty simple”, it opens. It meanders before it lands on the story of Mono, a small-time coke dealer who faces the aforementioned internet infamy after meeting Em at a party. At said party, there are hackneyed details, such as young people chopping their coke with their parents’ Platinum cards. But there are also moments of wit, such as Mono “reveling in free drinks and ambient vagina”. Though there are such moments of wit, the narrator is soon forgotten, and neither Mono nor Em are particularly sympathetic characters.
The next story, “McDonald’s”, is an interesting, though sometimes confusing piece of metafiction. It starts with the weak opening line “I’d been writing a story”, which is too similar to the opening line of “Emissions” for comfort. However, it soon transcends that as Cohen reveals the narrator’s obsession with his main character, a man named Ronald Ray, who has just killed his girlfriend and stashed her body is his car trunk. It’s framed first with the speaker in conversation with his father and then with his mother. This change of listeners doesn’t add much to the story.
Likewise, the discussion of “the Word” that the narrator can’t bring himself to put in the story he’s writing turns out, disappointingly, to be “McDonald’s”. There are not a lot of paragraph breaks, which occasionally makes for a difficult read (Cohen eschews quotation marks throughout as well), but the rambling format serves the obsessive nature of this story well.
The narrator of “McDonald’s” is a pharmaceutical copywriter, currently working to promote an antidepressant called Nomenex. Between the repeated references to Nomenex and the narrator’s frantic quest to choose a proper restaurant for Ronald Ray to visit (and, of course, the discussion of “the Word”), Cohen seems to be reaching for commentary about commodification that never gets realized. “I mclive in Brooklyn—I mchave no car”, he writes toward the end of the story). For its few shortcomings, Cohen plays off the part of the single-minded writer well, and “McDonald’s” is the kind of story that propels the reader forward.
The third story, “College Borough”, is a reminiscence of a visiting writer-professor who had the narrator’s writing class build a replica of the Flatiron Building on their campus. By now, having characters who are writers is wearing thin. Also, like the forgettable narrator of “Emissions”, “College Borough” is told under an unnecessary premise: the speaker is visiting NYU with his college-bound daughter, and it makes him reflect on his time spent with Greener, said visiting writer. There’s no obvious payoff to telling the story in hindsight, so one wonders why Cohen used the frame of the daughter’s college visit at all.
Further, “College Borough” continues the vague critique of commodification, first by mentioning that he is writing from a W hotel with a W pen, and later by mentioning a Mexican restaurant and trying to recall what its name was “pre-Chi-Chi’s, ante-Chipotle—Chili’s?” Greener’s character as the worn-down, disenfranchised, unorthodox writing instructor is also too played out, though the assignment of having his writing students build the Flatiron replica is an inventive touch, although it does invoke too many writing-as-architecture comparisons.
Finally, we come to the final story, “Sent”, which is told in several parts. The story’s first section, “Bed”, is the least self-conscious and most striking writing in the book: “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 woodman’s, he is a man in the woods. He is thick like wood and brown like wood and nothing about him is green.”
Breathtaking, fairy-tale passages like this make it easy to forget that this is the same writer who earlier wrote the phrase, “ambient vagina”. “Bed” details, in nearly magical realism, the making of a bed that finds its way into porn movies, whose making is described, and whose viewing is done in the story’s end. In Cohen’s hands, even the filmed intercourse is lovely:
“... them going back and forth as the pardner with the camera, lights, and sound, pulls in, pulls out, in again then zooms out on the fourhorned raging bed wobbling mortally, it has knees now, it’s on all fours now as they fuck on all fours atop it, ripping out tufts of mattress hair and popping buttons like whitehead pimples, and, though we never know her real name just her naked beauty (how when she’s on top her tits turn dizzying circles, how when he doggies her her breasts hang down like lucent bunches of fruit, like lamped grapes the veins)”
The story of the pornographers themselves is a bit hard to follow, but that doesn’t detract from the power of Cohen’s writing. He’s surprisingly tender, even when describing the porn stars who dot the story (though he does refer to them as “nonwomen” in one instance). The part of the story devoted to the porn watcher is in second person, and it’s a moving, winning, soft portrayal of masturbating to porn, the oblivion of desire for anything but the on-screen image, how the internet has changed porn. The only detractor from this magic is Cohen making the “you” into a writer yet again:
“You are not always a reader, you are occasionally a human. You are, often enough, a human who is not masturbating. There are other things to do with your hands.
Write. Type, type.
Write, I want to be a writer.
Write, I am a writer now.”
Cohen is a promising writer. As soon as he works out some of his issues with character and vague commentary, he’ll surely cultivate a following.