Supremely talented author Joshua Cohen returns with four tales about sex, technology and the blurring of the real and the virtual.
2010 saw the release of Joshua Cohen's most ambitious work yet: "Witz," a doorstop of a novel weighing in at over 800 pages, deals with a millennial plague that wipes out all but one of the world's Jewish population. "Witz" was anarchically witzig (witty), not to mention fiendishly clever and wildly inventive. Now, two years later, comes "Four New Messages," a quartet of short stories. Though this book is slimmer in size, Cohen hasn't scrimped on scope -- in many ways upping his trademark linguistic exuberance and amplifying his take on the absurdities of life to pack more into the reduced space.
In the first tale, "Emission," Mono, a drug dealer, is named and shamed with details of his lewd sexual exploits broadcast over the blogosphere by a callous Princeton student. Cohen flits ambidextrously between hip chat-room speak and drug-addled dialogue to create both a delicious black comedy and an updated Kafkaesque nightmare.
In "McDonald's," a copywriter ties himself up in knots trying to remember a certain word and attempts to overcome his block by conducting imaginary, confessional conversations with his parents.
Cohen incorporates key tropes from these first two tales into the last two. The invasion of cyber-security plus infringement on our sanity is retooled for the longest and most impressive story here, "Sent," in which a Russian folktale dissolves into heady disquisitions on the loss of identity and grimy Internet pornography. "The College Borough" returns us to the power of language, and as a replica of the Flatiron Building is constructed, so too does Cohen's wordplay reach dizzying heights.
It is in such verbal pyrotechnics that we find our author's strengths and weaknesses. Cohen has fun minting new words, either cramming them together ("compoundlongfrankfurteresquewords") or offering up wily approximations of the real thing ("dishsized speakers blatting juvescent pop"). He comes unstuck when forcing nouns to do the work of verbs, and for an overdependence on alliteration and puns. In "McDonald's," he compares his story to fast food, to be consumed, "excreted, excreated." Unfortunately this develops into a bad habit which pockmarks each story -- "Names aggregate, exaggerate," a porn scene is "luxuriously uxorious" -- but sloppiest of all are cheap lines such as "subvert the subversion," "stoops stooped" and "the process is in process."
Detractors may accuse Cohen of being all style and no substance, but beneath the trickery lurk soulful meditations on serious topics. "Literature isn't built merely of words," we learn at one juncture, and Cohen delivers far more in each tale. But ultimately it is the words that carry them, and in fact encapsulate them, and which bowl us over, every street-savvy, razor-sharp line.
"Highlarious!" shrieks Mono's antagonist. "Totally scrotally insane." We couldn't agree more.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.