“I should tell this story the way one should tell this story to one who has never made a bed,” says the narrator of “Sent,” the final missive in Joshua Cohen’s immoderately brilliant tetralogy Four New Messages. He’s describing a bed. Or rather, he’s parodying a particular folktale style of someone describing a bed—a parody into which creep carefully considered anachronisms and authorial asides (“Better to just show the bed! Fairies! Better to roll around on the thing and hear it sing! O spirited sprites!”). In so doing he’s also talking, as he does in each of these stories, about the process of writing not just as metafictional exercise but as it relates to the process of living. It’s not exactly the central preoccupation of the stories, but it’s nonetheless a sustained interest, and useful as a kind of organizing principle, because the breadth of Four New Messages’ preoccupations is as unbounded as the Internet, from which it draws its chief inspiration.
In the first story, “Emission,” the narrator is a failed writer, and even though he announces straightaway that “this isn’t that classic conceit where you tell a story about someone and it’s really just a story about yourself,” it still comes as a surprise that he is not, in fact, going to tell you about himself. He goes on, instead, to relate the tale of Mono, a drug courier from New Jersey who does something horribly stupid, which is then blogged about. After the post goes viral, Mono keeps doing progressively more stupid things that result in his having to flee the country. Cohen seems most interested here in the distancing effect of mediation, both in the world of the story, where virtual actions have unpredictable and chaotic real-world consequences, and in the mechanics of the story, where a writer who’s not a writer writes about someone who’s trying to erase something that’s been written about him, and in the process writes another, more interesting (but disastrous) story. For Cohen, mediation of any kind is a catastrophe in waiting. It’s just a question of degree, and the Internet is an efficient way to magnify that degree to grotesque proportions.
In the second story, “McDonald’s,” an unusually self-aware copy editor for a multinational pharmaceutical company and would-be pulp novelist tries to write about a guy who’s just stabbed his girlfriend to death, and drives around with her body bumping rhythmically in the backseat, and that rhythm—or the notion of a clock and time passing conjured by that image—serves as the origin myth of the story-within-the-story. He auditions various scenarios, first with his father, then his mother, first in the third person and, finally, defeated, in the first person. This writer is blocked, but his blockage is specific to an absurd degree: He can’t decide whether or not to identify by name the burger franchise where his character (Ronald Ray, a name “that makes him sound like a multiple killer already”) should eat. The word he cannot bring himself to write is of course the title of the story we’re reading. He can’t bring himself to write it because of his painfully self-conscious awareness that if he fictionalizes the name of the chain it will simply draw more attention to the actual name, and if he goes ahead and names the chain, he’s degrading his art for no purpose. (“Would that foodstuff corporation ever print his scriving on its wrappers?”)
The central character of “The College Borough” is again a writer: a one-hit-wonder novelist from Brooklyn named Greener who moves to College Town, USA, where he has his writing students construct an exact replica of the Flatiron Building on an unused baseball field. Which sounds like the kind of far-out plot you’d expect to find in a Donald Barthelme or George Saunders story, but Cohen uses the story only as a jumping-off point for a wonderfully twisted investigation of despair. “My generation’s screwed,” says Greener. “We’re the first nothing generation, we’ve got nothing to write about and no one to read it, everyone too busy getting technologized.” The parallels he draws between construction and writing are not just funny and apt and insightful but also moving in unexpected ways. A poet who used “no formal structure . . . just stray vowels and consonants . . . without anchor or ballast” is assigned by Greener to do the building’s foundation work, “delving into bedrock, wood pilings, concrete, rebar.” This is Greener’s specialty, “countering a writer’s faults . . . with a physical, practical correction.” Ironically, most of the writing students end up with successful careers in the very areas to which Greener has assigned them, including the narrator, who is given the job of roofing the “Fauxiron,” and is on hand to witness the tragic resolution of Greener’s project.
Throughout, Cohen uses his gifts extravagantly, but there are no lazy formulations, no banal phrases that he doesn’t either parody or somehow subvert, and by so doing create a new angle of perception that demands close rereading. With surprising efficiency, the author presents us with intricate layers of experience, but the emotions conveyed are never diminished by the braininess or the near absurdities, even when he writes (as he comes to do in “Bed”) of a journalist who encounters his favorite Russian porn stars in the flesh. One way of looking at metafiction is as a hypertrophied application of fiction’s great trump card, metaphor, and Cohen’s uninhibited embrace of its tropes allows him to examine his preoccupations in ways that nonfiction, however eloquent, can never hope to approach. Four New Messages might seem an ambitious title in an era when true literary innovation is rare, but Joshua Cohen exceeds expectations in ways that are gratifying in the present and promising for the future.
James Greer is the author of the novel The Failure (Akashic Books, 2010), the nonfiction book Guided by Voices: A Brief History (Grove Press, 2005), and the collection of short fiction Everything Flows, which will be published by Curbside Splendor in November.