Online Porn Stars and Literary Construction Workers, in a Strange New Story Collection from the Author of WitzS

Joshua Cohen's previous book Witz, an epic about the last Jew on Earth, received a healthy amount of review coverage for such a large and difficult novel. (See my io9 review here.) One of the more penetrating observations about the book's encyclopedic nature was this one, from Dan Visel's review:

One can't help noticing, while reading this book, that the word "Jew" never appears, an absent center. The Internet is almost entirely absent as well: there's a random "online" and a stray "://" but only two occurrences in 817 pages set at the turn of the millennium in a book in which absolutely everything else appears suggests that this omission is pointed. Something isn't being said.

While Visel wasn't the only reviewer to notice that the Jews went unnamed in the normal way, his remarks about the absence of the Internet now appear to be receiving their reply with Four New Messages, Cohen's new story collection.

Saying that the entire book is "about the Internet" isn't quite right, since only the first and last of its four stories properly concern our favorite time-wasting technology. In "Emission" a drug dealer's reputation is demolished by a customer who blogs about a transgression of his, and in "Sent" the lives of an online porn starlet and a devoted fan converge. Sandwiched between them are two fictions of some degree of meta-ness. In "McDonald's" a writer struggles to complete a story without naming the titular restaurant, and in "The College Borough" another writer conscripts his students into replicating New York's Flatiron Building in an unnamed Midwestern town.

Like Witz, the stories in Four New Messages are driven more by language than by plot. While the prose is generally less extravagant this time, there are still parts that honor Stanley Elkin's famous belief that more is more:

This reporter was told that though the bar's ambience blarneyed Irish, its name was very much of its place and time, ambitious, nearly excessively utopian: The Brothel Under the Sign of the Dice with Three Faces, Where Lesbians Drink Free on Sundays, Male Homosexuals Eat Free Every Second Monday, Where Behind One of the Toilet Tanks Is Said to be Hidden a Jew's Treasure, and the Rook's Nest in the Garderobe Has Been Formed from the World's Longest Lime Twig That if Ever Unraveled into Its Original Curvature Would Spell Out the Word Typewriter... (but I think here I might've been toyed with).

Ultimately, there's nothing in Four New Messages that crosses over to science fiction as boldly as Witz did, or that hits the same thematic heights. One wonders why Cohen gives his attention to topics as mundane as writer's block or the online economies of gossip and pornography. One also wonders why he conjoins the writerly themes with the Internet-ly ones.

Let's start with the writerly stuff. While both "McDonald's" and "The College Borough" might appear to be easy exercises in taboo avoidance and magic realism respectively, both also implicitly refer back to an American tradition of fucking around with recursion in fiction. I'm thinking in particular of David Foster Wallace's early novella "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" and its targeting of John Barth's metafiction. In that work, the marketing guru J.D. Steelritter is responsible for the dominance of both Barth-style writing in the literary world and McDonald's-style dining in the food world. Where Wallace tilts directly at the parallels between those two franchises, Cohen supplies his counterpart stories with absent centers (again). Hell, the absent center of "McDonald's" is the story. More obliquely, "The College Borough" describes the replacement of one kind of craft by another, with embryonic writers being transformed into construction professionals. In both stories, Cohen appears to be gesturing at some large thought about the weakness of writing itself.

Which brings us back to the Internet, home of writing weak and strong, as well as oodles of recursion. The narrative logic of "Emission" and "Sent" is the logic of clicking from one shiny thing to another online, with the act of pursuit being the only thing either story entirely coheres around. The former describes a relatively simple cycle of action and reaction triggered by the initial "defamation" of its dealer hero. The latter stretches to novella length by adding a mock-folktale frame and large chunks of backstory. We learn all about actress Toyta Dzhakhmadkalova, or at least as much as the oafish reporter pursuing her can learn, but neither he nor we ever properly come to know her. The last few pages return to the folktale realm, introducing the ghosts of Toyta and her starlet colleagues and concluding with the words "My message has been sent." What's the message? That's left as an exercise for the reader.