In Four New Messages Joshua Cohen set out to write “a series of fables about life online.” The resulting stories span a wide geographical and narrative terrain, from the drug-fueled parties of Princeton to the fabular origins of Slavic literature. The opening story, “Emission,” was awarded a Pushcart Prize and even inspired a short film. The collection builds upon a growing body of work (Witz, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto) that has generated comparisons to Wallace, Pynchon (Cohen as erudite and often funny American writer of postwar period) and Bernard Malamud (Cohen as erudite Jewish-American writer of the postwar period).
I sat down with Cohen in his New York City apartment to discuss the process of writing about the internet, his formative years as a journalist in Eastern Europe, and the deep familial roots of his writing habits.
Michael Schapira: You recently taught for the first time in a creative writing program, but in “The College Borough” none of the students are counseled to become writers. Was the story written before this experience, or was this advice based on some previous experiences in college writing courses?
Joshua Cohen: I wrote it while teaching. I’d be depressed if any of my students recognized themselves in it, in a one to one correspondence, say, but at the same time to spare them how I felt would be disingenuous. It can be a wasting thing, teaching writing, especially when I’m not allowed to teach reading or literature alongside it.
Because you don’t have the necessary academic credentials?
Because I don’t have the PhD. Then again, there are how many people loitering within ten blocks of here with a PhD in literature, more accredited to teach it than I am? But there was literally no way for me to teach literature. Faculty, even students, would complain that I was encroaching on other people’s territory.
Was dealing with administration the most shocking part of it? I’ve been reading about the rise of these stultifying bureaucracies and they’d be unrecognizable both to those who left the university 50 years ago and those who left 10 years ago.
No, the worst part was realizing the autophagy involved. The idea is that you get an MFA in order to teach the MFA — it’s the only way you’re going to support yourself. That, to me, is insane. You launch yourself with the publication of a book, or of journalism, but these become anomalies in a career that began in the university and will end in the university. This seems to be the goal of many MFA students, and in their defense this is because they’ve been told repeatedly just how few possibilities there are outside academe — though it has to be said, these tellings are true, and they should be true.
Did you find a similar thing with journalism, where people would come in with a certain expectation of being able to lead a kind of lifestyle and then becoming disillusioned? Both journalism and universities call for a buy-in that has become more tenuous in their current forms.
The journalism experience [as a reporter in Central and Eastern Europe] made me, against all odds, a crypto-Reaganite — I’m joking, but the truth is, my politics have become zero-sum — the politics of an emergency. In journalism, you have to produce. You can be in an MFA program for x number of terms and you’ll be passed through — “your thesis” (AKA “your book”) will be passed, no matter what. But to slack on a deadline will elicit the ultimate market response. There’s no coddling in that regard. That was useful for me as a writer.
Many people ask you about your writing habits, or are interested in the fact that you produce a lot of things. Is this just a habit that you built up freelancing?
Maybe. The healthy psychological answer — or the completely unhealthy — would be to point to the fear conditioned from having to support myself as a journalist from the age of 20. But that type of fear might also be genetic. My father works compulsively, my uncle works obsessively, and my grandfather basically lived at his dock. My aunt once made a documentary about my grandfather — actually it’s in the collection at MoMA — called Joe and Maxi. He plays this wonderfully telling scene where it’s very late at night and his children are keeping him awake. “Gotta go to sleep, gotta wake up,” he says, like he’s interested in the shortest possible interval of unconsciousness. For better or worse, I’ve inherited that.
What kind of stories were you reporting on during your time in Europe? Did you have an extensive background in Central and Eastern European history before going over?
A certain amount. However much you can learn from reading books and taking European history classes. But no one was teaching recent Soviet or Eastern Bloc history on the undergraduate level when I was in college [1998-2001].
Recent as in post fall of the wall?
I don’t know how many classes are offered today about the period of the ’60s and ’70s, after the Hungarian revolution and the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. I have the sense that most European history educations end with the War — I certainly grew up in a house that gave me enough of an education about the Second War — so filling the gap between that and the Wall was largely literature, a wall of books, the best of which had been published in samizdat.
I was reporting on events of Jewish interest. I spoke Hebrew, which didn’t help, because everybody spoke English. My German got better. I picked up some Czech, some Slovak, Polish, but none of these were prerequisites, none were qualifications. I think my only qualifications were that I was willing to work for very little money, and to take very long unheated trains in winter.
This was the time when a lot of foreign correspondents were being fired or bought out in favor of local writers who used to be fixers, translators, guides, but had developed their English proficiency enough to report. You’d be reading more Polish bylines in American newspapers. But my English was native and, again, I was willing to work for a local salary, piss and crap through holes.
And it was enough to support yourself?
Barely. I had to take on a lot of other freelance work, and was drinking too much too.
What were the Russian or Central European figures that attracted you? The comparisons I always see with you are to Pynchon and Wallace, two postwar American figures. But you spent a lot of time writing in Europe. When I think about European fiction I think about these towering Central European writers like Kafka, Von Kleist, or Thomas Mann.
Pynchon was important to me in my late teens and early twenties, just like all the writers of that generation were — they’re shocking to read for the first time, I think for anyone. But it wasn’t the same for Wallace. It’s enough with Wallace. The comparison is cheap. If he hadn’t hanged himself no one would be saying that my books are related to his in any certain way. I understand the pressures of journalism and having to TK a characterization or whatever, but Infinite Jest came out in 1996. I was 15, 16 years old. I certainly didn’t read it then. I didn’t know the writers of the ’80s that that he was rebelling against — the Raymond Carvers and Ann Beatties — so his work didn’t seem to me like a rebellion — not Infinite Jest, and certainly not the essays, which always seemed, by contrast, too limited, too controlled. He also hated irony, but the irony he hated was a televisual irony, whereas the irony I was interested in was a tradition of humor that predates the sitcom.
It was always, for me, Jewish writers. I grew up in an observant home. I went to a school where we had Torah class, we had Nach, Talmud, Gemara. Books were the secularizing force. Kafka was important, sure, but the most important would be the Russians. All the Russians. I know he’s not Eastern, but Bernhard was a revelation; Sebald too. All throughout I read these Central and Eastern European writers as cohorts of the Israeli writers I loved, and of Roth and Bellow too.
When you read someone like Sebald you recognize that this is very serious writing, and I tend to associate it with a certain kind of high European literature. It’s very serious, it’s very engaged with ideas, history, very interested in a kind of territory that I can’t help but romanticize.
Sure, but there’s a major generational break between the Hermann Brochs, or the Robert Musils, or the Manns of the world, and people like Hrabal and Kiš who wrote very short, very funny. It’s not just a chronological or even a cultural shift — rather a shift in the entire history of the book. From doorstops to crowbars, say. When it comes to the Russians I’ve always loved Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but I also love these smaller books by Nabokov like Glory, which is more important to me than Anna Karenina and War and Peace combined.
Is Nabokov a bridge figure between these two eras?
I don’t know if he’s a bridge. If you’re hoping to link the large novel of Central Europe and the large novel of postwar America I think Thomas Mann’s a much brighter prospect. He’s writing like it’s the late 19th century, but it’s the middle 20th. He’s working at such a Spenglerian point of decay that he’s aware of all the effects of which fiction is, or was, capable, and I think it’s that awareness of those effects that translated to America.
Forget the books that everyone reads. Think of the Joseph cycle, a thousand-page retelling of the Bible. It’s essentially a nonfiction pastiche where he’s pointing at every little symbol with this long, hairy finger saying, “consider this — this is a symbol.” It’s almost like he’s inventing the theory for his own book, and, as in critical theory, considering things so closely that they dissolve.
There are URLs in the back of Four Messages, one for every story. Are you working from these links as an image of sorts, out of which you construct the narrative?
No, everything with the exception of the last link came after. The last link is to a site that’s basically the IMDB.com of porn, and it leads to a page for a guy whose production company I worked for, doing translations, when I lived abroad. He’s the model for “the friend,” in “Sent.” But the entire conception of the book was to write a set of exemplary tales about the internet. A set of cautionary tales hearkening back to the oldest literature, which is an inscription or proscription saying, “stop!” or “don’t do this!” I had the idea that it’d be interesting to write a series of fables, but not necessarily in a fabular style, about life online. I wanted to show people whose lives had been changed, even ruined, either by the actual technology, or by these ideas of replication and dissemination.
You left to work in Europe immediately after graduating college. College comes up quite a bit in Four Messages, but doesn’t come off in a very positive light. In “Emission” it’s not a place of culture, but rather a market for this cocaine dealer. Was your experience with college negative, to the point where you don’t romanticize it as a refuge of culture and learning?
My experience of all education has been traumatic, more or less. Maybe it was that I always disliked authority and teachers, or the rigidity of school. Also, I like the idea of the cusp — I didn’t want to begin my stories on a Wednesday. We don’t really have that many rights of passage or clear demarcations of ascent to maturity in America. College struck me as one of them, as really the great rite of passage for two, three, maybe even four generations of Americans now. It’s a formal break from which characters can form themselves, in a Bildungsroman way.
Europe is a different figure that crops up in two of the stories. Again, it’s not romanticized in ways that if often can be. People seem go there either to escape something or to start something after dead-ending in the U.S. When you went to Europe after college, was it a place to go out into the world to form yourself in this Bildungsroman way, or was there some other motivation?
I didn’t know what my purpose was for going there, beyond that it seemed like reporting from there was a more interesting job than anything I could scrounge up in New York. But certainly there was an element of wanting to see where a lot of my relatives had lived, to see if there were any remnants of how they’d lived.
Thinking about it now, I’d say that another idea was to find the sources of my culture. People from all over America come to New York because there’s theater and such and it all seems more intellectual and artistic than anywhere else. You can go hear a concert or visit a gallery, which I certainly did as a child. But for me it seemed like all of my cultural products, you could say, came from another time, and certainly another place.
In another sense it was like going to Israel for the first time. It was like going to a place where the language I spoke in school was the language people were speaking on the street, but because it was a language that had a street, there were words the rabbis didn’t teach me. I had to relearn. You go to the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, and it’s totally foreign. Then you meet this one Palestinian sitting by the Dung Gate who sits there every day and spits sunflower seeds. That’s where he sits — which is probably the most valid historical justification for anyone being anywhere ever — he is there everyday. He abides.
Sure, you want to see how this history lives forward and changes in the present. I had sort of the opposite experience during my trip to Israel. At a certain point, say when I was 12, my family became concerned about my secular upbringing and we went over to Israel for me to get Bar Mitzvahed. I learned my portion phonetically, we rented a Torah from a Torah rental place, hiked up Mount Masada, and I had the ceremony in a little temple space that was also rented. I think the idea was that once I was up there surrounded by this history I would feel a connection with Judaism and its history, but, strangely, none of this occurred.
Sure, that reconnection is what the Ministry of Tourism wants. But I think it’s actually not that strange. It would be much stranger to feel a connection. What can you have, or feel, in common with a Bar Kochba — with a gang of total zealots out on the top of a mountain, starving themselves, martyring themselves and their families only so as not to die by the swords of the Romans? To develop that sort of sentimentality across the centuries is crazy.
But I also think that if you’re given this from birth, as opposed to the age of 12, there’s a bit more digging you have to do to get to truth.
Is Four Messages a signal that you are moving away from writing in way that is self-consciously intervening in the tradition of Jewish fiction?
I don’t think I’m moving away from it. I just think there’s a certain recovery of soul that has to come after writing an 800-page book.
For me, Jewishly — I’m not sure what there is to say. I’d like for there to be something to say, and I’d like to have something to say only because I feel it would be tragic for the culture in which I was born and raised to have stagnated due to a genocide; for all of its traditions to be put out on Polish ice.
I say this as someone who doesn’t really believe that any of the American importations to Jewish tradition are that interesting, or intellectually sophisticated, or emotionally viable. But it’s less a crisis that I have less to say than that the religion or culture has less to say nowadays.
Discourse surrounding the effects of the internet is another one that is currently wanting. We interviewed Miles Klee, recently, and he was unconvinced that anyone had learned how to write the internet well (he seemed to be thinking about novelists). His standard was a “form that takes the style of skipping around web pages back and forth, refreshing, not even finishing the thing you’re on.” So the standard seems to be either the obsessive, schizophrenic, or distracted experience of being online. These are qualities of attention that are affected by internet use. Do you think this is the key thing to get right in trying to write the internet?
But that description can also be applied to the surrealist techniques of the 1920s or the writing of William S. Burroughs. Texts that repeat, hop, skip, jump around, are like the cut-ups that Burroughs did with Brion Gyson. Still, I think that type of discontinuity better characterizes what it’s like to read the internet, or surrealism, not to write “it” — writing can’t be done in that way.
If someone were to look at your internet history for the past week, you’d be diagnosed as a schizophrenic. You’d be looking at your email, you’d be looking at porn, you’d be refreshing some social networking thing, you’d be searching up a recipe or restaurant, then a map to some monument in another nonsensical country. What you’re missing is the flesh that ties it all together, the mind that binds, which is to say, psychology — whatever it is that’s responsible for whatever we attend or hearken to, as Heidegger would say.
You have to admit, we haven’t all become schizophrenics. We’ve changed, but not that much. So when it comes to writing about the human, which, to me, is what all of literature must be about, the idea is to provide connectivity.
This gets into the question of experience. Historically, when you’re reading a novel you’re vicariously experiencing someone else’s life. You come to understand why characters made certain decisions, you follow them through a certain time, and come to identify with them. The experience of using the internet is similar — it represents a doubling. You can hide your identity, you can secrete yourself under multiple avatars, you can lurk, you can troll. Writing about the internet is essentially giving the reader a vicarious experience of a vicarious experience. The metafiction is built-in, because your characters are already living vicariously, and now your reader is going to start living vicariously through them. To understand this was to be freed.
So once you figured that out it didn’t become something that you had to think about too much — for example, that the ubiquitous experience of the internet would put some formal constraints on a writer.
Not at all. One of my only worries was not to use any words that would read as dated in ten years, in five. But I don’t know how long this book deserves to live, or how long any book will live. But then there’s also some planned obsolescence, or this awareness of a capacity for obsolescence, in the prose: “Sent” begins as a folktale, before all the sophistications of “fiction.” There’s this folktale and then you go through the history of “Russia.” There’s a little 19th-century Romanticism, a little Pushkin quote. The Revolution. A hint of Socialist Realism, a taste of the (old-fashioned) Modern. What I’m saying is, my book is nothing original. There have been many, many, iterations of narrative change.
In an interview you did with Blake Butler you said that narrative and plot came before the choice of language. Was that still the case in these stories, where the process of writing is certainly on display? Or does something like tone precede story?
The story is the language. The hope is to make them or find them as inseparable. If you can locate a difference between a story and the language it’s told in, something is wrong. The language has to come not from, but with or as the story. I can’t write about Russia without some Russianness in the prose. Forget proper nouns; just the feeling of it. A birch limb dripping dew — that is something a Russian might see, something a Russian might even hear.
And now you’re working on a non-fiction book about attention. Which makes sense, given what we’ve been discussing.
The book about attention is essentially a book about distraction, and its thesis is that attention doesn’t exist.
Science has tried to define an attention system, analogous to your digestive system, nervous, or circulatory systems. This system would incorporate the workings of your visual cortex, your auditory cortex, your parietal lobes — though I don’t understand why this is limited to neural and physiological processes because my ashtray, my cigarettes, and my lighter here also seem to be included in this system — the stimuli might be colluding, too.
But it’s not as if the philosophers are more trustworthy. Last century’s basic question — “is attention a function or state?” — is fundamentally flawed. If it’s a function, we’ll attempt to interpret whatever new work the neuroscientists come up with. But if it’s a state, what does that mean? “Attention” seems to me very much like an artificially created resource, created only to introduce an artificial scarcity, as a means of social control. Our lack of it is a nightmare borne of our experiencing today’s ultimate attentive apparatus: surveillance.
So there is a broader social political commentary that is built into this.
The book is written in these very short “attention-deficit” chapters — “broader social political commentary” reflected even in short form.
A friend of mine wanted me to ask if you ever worried about burning out, given the amount of writing that you have done and continue to do.
When people ask that question, I’m never quite sure what world they’re living in, or what world they’d rather be living in. We’re reading in a time when to write your first novel you go and get a degree. You work on this book along with a dozen other writers, in a class. Everyone gives “input,” like in a communist Writers’ Union. The verb would be “massaging”: breaking the book down to mediocrity, a medium-size mediocrity, before making use of the connections you’ve made inside your department to get an agent, to get an editor, to get the thing published, to get the thing reviewed (forget “sold” — always forget “sold”).
But what’s next? You’re not going to get a degree every time you write a book. The writer who taught you is not going to come to your house and hold your hand, guide your writing hand, through your “sophomore effort.” The result is a system of debuts. A debut, followed by tenure — congrats. The truth is, if you consider the history of literature, there’s rarely been such calculation. Such gaming of career. To presume that everything I make is a cultural artifact that requires a certain space to be demarcated around it for its public presentation, that it needs to be presented in a certain way at a certain time to a certain group, to assure maximum impact — that’s a way too conscious way of living. At least it is for me.