Q and A: Joshua Cohen

Andrew Ervin

I’ve never met Joshua Cohen (Full Disclosure: Cohen was an editor at the Prague Literary Review, where he published one of my earliest short stories), but I’ve been following his career with enormous pleasure and enormous jealousy since 2005 when I read his first collection of stories, The Quorum. I don’t remember The Quorum getting a great deal of attention, but in my mind it immediately established him as young author of outlandishly prodigal talents. Here’s the thing, though: Cohen is clearly capable of verbal pyrotechnics, of tremendous intellectual showboating, yet his fiction—which is international in scope—never felt gratuitous to me in any way. Not until 2010, anyway, when he published Witz, his fifth book in five years—that novel is quite gratuitous, albeit in all the right ways.

To say I’ve learned to trust the tastes of Christian Lorentzen, now a senior editor at London Review of Books, is a bit of an understatement. When I went into a literally last minute, going-to-the-printers panic about the opening paragraph of my own book, he was the one I went to for advice. And he came up big for me. So when Lorentzen called Witz the “sort of postmodern epic that arrives like a comet about once every decade, like Infinite Jest or Gravity’s Rainbow,” I knew it was worth paying attention. The blood of young (white, male) authors greases the cogs of our publishing hype machine, and it’s always easy to get overheated about what Barth called the best next thing, but if any recent American novel can withstand the label of “masterpiece,” it is almost certainly Witz.

The saturation of hype, information, and of the corporate branding all around us feels like a central concern of Cohen’s new book, Four New Messages.

I asked him a few questions about the book via email in mid-August.

Andrew Ervin: Some years ago, I asked William T. Vollmann about using brand names and pop culture references in fiction. He basically said—I’m paraphrasing like crazy here—that a work of art exists up in the clouds and every reference to our commercial sphere functions like a chain that we use to drag the art down to our mundane and debased world. David Foster Wallace, on the other hand, took a far different approach, obviously, and was famous for using product names to great literary effect. Much of Infinite Jest, to take one example, takes place during the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.

In an interview, Wallace once said: “[W]e already ’know’ U.S. culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn’t engage anybody. What’s engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn’t have a price? And can these capacities be made to thrive?” Can they?

Joshua Cohen: The short answer is Yes. The long answer is boring—which is why, I suspect, Wallace kept the question rhetorical. Each and every word a writer commits to either accepts or rejects a reality, rather either establishes a consensus or destroys it (by continuity or discontinuity, by resolving sincerity with irony and vice-versa…). So it’s the reading act, the act of following a writer through his or her world-beginning-and-ending—whether with Prada or pravda, Fiat or fiat (which is to say too, this isn’t just a U.S. thing)—that argues, ultimately, for the future of joy, charity, etc.

AE: In “Emission,” a character named Mono runs away to Europe to escape his online notoriety. To what extent are all these technologies and these social media sites affecting our behavior? How are they affecting your thinking and your fiction?

JC: The answer to how these technologies have affected my fiction is in my fiction—is my fiction. If I could’ve answered more directly—say, in an online Q&A—believe me, I would’ve. As for our behavior—let the very fact that we’re doing a Q&A answer that. Today, most of our reading is done online. I’m not sure that this should be the case, but it is case. We read freely and expect what we read to be free—or to cost only our response to it, our “interaction.” I’m interested, primarily, in how the way and material we read affects the way and material we write—empowers/licenses (bad verbs) it.

AE: A writing teacher named Greener in “The College Borough” is “the type who would give you a cig but not a light.” He might be the most sympathetic character in this book—and he’s a complete asshole. Were you in his position, what would you teach would-be writers about crafting interesting characters?

JC: If I were in Greener’s position, I’d do just what he does—which is to…no, no—Greener would spoil a story’s ending, I wouldn’t. … But I would spoil the character himself, rather the very essence of “character.” I’m not sure I find Greener “interesting.” To me, he’s a type—a familiar typology—an older than young but also younger than old, weteyed, applemouthed, Jewishish writer, entitled, needy, wanty, raging. A schematic hero for a schematic tale about—apologies—schematics.

AE: “Sent” includes the most virtuosic prose about internet porn—and how it “rewires your brain”—since Curtis White’s Requiem (itself another potential masterpiece). What do you make of the fact that we’ve assembled the profoundest educational tool in the history of civilization, one that brings a million Libraries of Alexandria into our homes, or a million Borgesian Libraries of Babel, and its primary utility is for watching women get degraded?

JC: Have you been to a library lately? A real actual bricks and mortar bookhouse? If you have, you’ve noticed that our fellow taxpayers aren’t teaching themselves Sumerian, or reading Aeschylus, or even Anne Carson’s Aeschylus, or even Anne Carson. At the Mid-Manhattan branch I frequent many only use the toilets—shitting (in urinals), pissing (on floors)—the sinks—washing, shaving—sleep. If porn sites weren’t blocked, trust me, hands would be creeping down past the elastic. The internet, even more than the library, is a foodless, drinkless paragon of the Naked Lunch—in Burroughs’ words, “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

AE: You’ve now published six books in seven years, one of them 817 pages. Tell me about your writing habits. Do you sleep?

JC: I write and sleep daily. Often, both, at the library.

AE: How do decide what to read next?

JC: A pile I want to read—books recommended by friends. A pile I feel I need to read—books for what I’m writing. A bed between. No one else in bed.

Andrew Ervin is the author of a collection of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions.