April 22, 2013

Book Review: "Four New Messages" by Joshua Cohen

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Four New Messages

Four New Messages
By Joshua Cohen
Graywolf Press
Reviewed by Travis Fortney

How many authors' mere mention in a cover blurb (i.e. this author is like that one) is enough to force you to pick up a book? For me, the list is short, and one name on it is David Foster Wallace.

The Wallace comparison makes me take notice precisely for the ways that his work is inimitable. Whereas the key ingredient in a Richard Ford novel can be boiled down to a kind of wistful interiority, and a book of Mary Gaitskill's short stories can be identified by the author's own brand of sexual frankness, and you can find these characteristics in a host of lesser imitators, what makes exactly makes a Wallace book unique is harder to pin down.

Yes, there is the strangeness, the unwillingness to self-censor, the verbal gymnastics, the comic/dystopic, the meta-ness, the general feeling of awe at the display of the author's brainpower. But to me there is also an indefinable joy, a bigheartedness, and a simple accurateness to his vision--such that inserting his name into a blurb or review promises something awe-inspiring within the book's pages.

The Wallace comparison has led to disappointments before--I still don't much appreciate George Saunders' work, for example, and found myself simmering with a totally unreasonable anger when Charlie Rose repeatedly brought up the comparison in an recent interview marking the release of Saunders' new book. When friends recommend that I read a Saunders book, I think less of them. Which is not to say that Saunders' work doesn't have obvious positive qualities.

It works both ways. I never would have picked up Adam Ross's Mr. Peanut if not for the Wallace comparisons, and was pleasantly surprised by that book. Although the two authors are concerned with very different material, I was swept up by Ross's narrative in a way that was at times eerily similar to my experience with Wallace.

Perhaps all of this is due to my own experience of reading Infinite Jest at just the right time, but the experience was so earth-shattering for me that I assume it must be have been that way for everyone, so that when a reviewer drops Wallace's name when there are so many other authors to choose from, I expect that reviewer is expressing the feeling of being knocked flat, awestruck, amazed, and that they have no better words for summing up the experience than to say, "It's as if a Paul Thomas Anderson movie married a David Foster Wallace novel and had a baby," or "This anarchic energy recalls Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace."

The above quotes concern Fiona Maazel's Woke Up Lonely and Joshua Cohen's Four New Messages, respectively, both recently published by Graywolf Press (I reviewed Maazel's book here).

I read Maazel's novel mostly because I found the premise interesting and not due to the above blurb, but the comparisons to Wallace definitely played into my decision to pick up Cohen's book of stories (Wallace is mentioned twice on the back cover, and in seemingly every review of the book, which now includes this one). I have mixed feelings about the comparison and about Graywolf's decision to quote those reviews on the back cover--Cohen is an undeniably talented young writer but the comparison creates an unreasonable expectation.

To get to the point, Cohen's book did remind me of Wallace, but it reminded me of Girl with Curious Hair rather than Infinite Jest or Oblivion. I mean that as a compliment, but I will say that I found Girl to be an uneven book, the work of an author who had not yet reached his full potential, sometimes too clever, sometimes too at the mercy of obvious influences, and sometimes annoying--and I found it to be all of those things even though I read it after Infinite Jest, that is, while deep in the throes of the most geeked-out state of writerly fandom that I had ever experienced and have never again experienced in the decade or so since. Not to put to blunt a point on it, but I cannot yet count myself as a fan of Cohen, and so I didn't have as much tolerance for this books shortcomings. What's missing from Four New Messages (or at least the first three) and is abundantly available in even the earliest Wallace is that very same "anarchic energy" the blurb on the back cover of this book promises.

I'm not sure where I got this impression, but I went into this book expecting longer and more impressive sentences. Instead, Cohen's reputed verbal dexterity mostly consists of shortening or adding suffixes to certain words. I also had the impression that Cohen had the reputation for unique insight into the internet age, but was again largely unimpressed. He does a nice job of using the right vocabulary and inserting some internet jargon into his stories, but to what end? The first story--and by far the best of the bunch--concerns a drug dealer who has his reputation ruined by a blog. The last story concerns the ways that young men are sexualized in the internet age. The middle two stories are basically concept-driven experiments that don't concern the internet. I found the middle two stories mildly annoying, and the bookends mildly disappointing, but only mildly. I felt like Cohen's most exciting ideas--internet porn and online reputation management--had already been well explored in other mediums, and I felt too much boredom and too little excitement while reading this book. Maybe this is a result of the internet age itself, where something that seemed totally new on its release only a few months now seems like old news. Maybe its my own fault, trying to recapture a feeling that just doesn't come around that often. And maybe its just due to the fact that I read the last fifty pages of this while I rather would have been outside frolicking.

Ah, well. In fairness, I should mention that the blurbs on the back cover of Four New Messages concern Cohen's earlier work Witz, an 817-page experimental novel which I haven't read but sounds like it might more closely align with my tastes. I may pick that one up and have a look, or I may wait to see what this prolific young writer comes up with next.

Out of 10: 8

Read even more about Four New Messages: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Travis Fortney at 4:12 PM, April 22, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |