Joshua Cohen's Verbal Gymnastics: Four New Messages

Juli C. Lasselle

Four New MessagesThe latest book by Joshua Cohen is a collection of four short stories aptly titled Four New Messages. Cohen has been likened to Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, and certainly this collection falls into the same postmodern category as their writings. If you are interested in an intellectual exploration of language within short stories, then this book will not disappoint. He shows off his verbal dexterity in these four "messages" on the effects of unrestrained technology. In doing so, he asks us to consider our own relationships with ourselves, our families, art, and, expressly, the writing process in these times of consuming technology and corporatism.

In the process of exploring these themes, Cohen falls prey to that which he tries warning us against: giving more importance to the means than to the thing itself. In this case, the intellectual manipulation of language is given more weight than the characterizations or, dare I say, the heart of the story. There are no emotional engagements with the characters—for the reader or even, it sometimes feels, for Cohen himself. This is, in part, due to the overuse of parentheticals, commas, and the em dash, which pull the reader out of the story and demonstrates how oh-so-aware a character and (by extension) Cohen are of the thought process:


What model Ford? Dad asked, A white Ford, I said, a white Ford Escort, I said, I don’t know why I have such an easy time saying Ford but I do, it’s simple to say and so obvious to say that the car was a Ford and it was, maybe a Ford Fiesta in red, in yellow, in a color like Autumn if Autumn’s a color—do Fords come in Autumn? is it redundant to speak of an Autumnal Ford? Dad (who might, as I write this, be performing his nightly check that the garage door is locked) asked, Why would you have trouble saying Ford?

The most compelling story to me was Part 1 of the final story in the series, "Sent." Beginning with a woman in labor on a dirt floor and her husband--the woodsman--who makes a bed for her to give birth in, the story follows their family's generations through their relationships with this hard-carved bed. We ultimately come to the current generation embodied in a young woman who has sex with one of the porn-making "pardners" in front of a camera for money, until the handmade nails of her woodsman ancestor come out and the bed falls apart. Represented not only through the woodsman and his wife living in nature and having an at-home, unassisted childbirth characteristic of that era, "Sent" is an astute, if not original, take on the separation between the natural world's technological advances and our contemporary culture and society.

Cohen also contextualizes the separation from the natural world in the second story, "The College Borough," when he places--through the memories of one of the main character's students--a once heralded New York writer into a small, Midwestern college town. Under the auspices of teaching creative writing, this New York writer, Greener, has his class build a replica of the iconic New York flatiron building on a University field. Greener cannot imagine that a writer outside of New York could possibly have anything to write about. And so it would seem, Cohen agrees. The elitism of the New York postmodern writer rears its head. All of Greener's students eventually give up writing to work in the areas of construction, design, or restoration. The message here is that the true writerly life must be an urban one (specifically in New York); and by removing the true writer from their "natural" city habitat, they are sentenced to writing failure, depression, and probable death.

In sum, there is no doubt that Joshua Cohen has something to say and the talent and skills with which to say it. He has a clear passion for language that propels his intellectual exploration of his own verbal gymnastics in order to tell thought provoking stories. This is both Cohen's strength and his weakness. I believe that language should be used in service to the story and not the raison d'être of the story--as it seems to be with many postmodern writers. This is, of course, a subjective opinion and should be taken as such.



Four New Messages
By Joshua Cohen
Graywolf Press, August 7, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-1555976187

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