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Four New Messages

Four New Messages

by Joshua Cohen

See All Formats & Editions

A quartet of audacious fictions that capture the pathos and absurdity of life in the age of the internet

*A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice*
* One of Flavorwire's "50 Books That Define the Past Five Years in Literature"

A spectacularly talented young writer has returned from the present with Four New Messages,


A quartet of audacious fictions that capture the pathos and absurdity of life in the age of the internet

*A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice*
* One of Flavorwire's "50 Books That Define the Past Five Years in Literature"

A spectacularly talented young writer has returned from the present with Four New Messages, urgent and visionary dispatches that seek to save art, sex, and even alienation from corporatism and technology run rampant.

In "Emission," a hapless drug dealer in Princeton is humiliated when a cruel co-ed exposes him exposing himself on a blog gone viral. "McDonald's" tells of a frustrated pharmaceutical copywriter whose imaginative flights fail to bring solace because of a certain word he cannot put down on paper. In "The College Borough" a father visiting NYU with his daughter remembers a former writing teacher, a New Yorker exiled to the Midwest who refuses to read his students' stories, asking them instead to build a replica of the Flatiron Building. "Sent" begins mythically in the woods of Russia, but in a few virtuosic pages plunges into the present, where an aspiring journalist finds himself in a village that shelters all the women who've starred in all the internet porn he's ever enjoyed.

Highbrow and low-down, these four intensely felt stories explain what happens when the virtual begins to colonize the real -- they harness the torrential power and verbal dexterity that have established Cohen as one of America's most brilliant younger writers.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Rachel Kushner
[Cohen] is literate, though his collection never feels particularly derivative. As in his previous works, the sentences here are unbridled, deliberately kitschified with rhyme, repetition and assonance…puns and neologisms…and compounds homemade…Language—not elision—is the primary material of Cohen's oeuvre, and his method of negotiating his way toward meaning is like powering straight through a thick wall of words. It's a crowded, teeming tone, but the reward is an off-kilter precision, one that feels both untainted and unique.
Publishers Weekly
Cohen’s newest (after Witz) is a quartet of short stories addressing the plight of the failed writer in a number of bizarre scenarios that effectively highlight contemporary concerns regarding authenticity and artifice. In “Emission,” a failed novelist-turned-businessman relates the tale of a hapless collegiate drug deliverer, Richard Monomian, who comes horrifically face-to-face with his online identity when a fellow partygoer and partaker of Richard’s “snax” blogs about one of Richard’s sordid sexual capers. This unsettling confluence of one’s real and digital selves is revisited in the dreamily distorted “Sent,” wherein an up-and-coming journalist finds himself in a settlement housing all the women he’d ever ogled in online pornography. By zeroing in on the loaded metaphors of the Internet, as when Cohen refers to a porn site’s catalogue of women as “its Home,” the author thriftily lends a great deal of rhetorical force to stories that less adventurous readers might deem too opaque or experimental. Though the pieces occasionally lose track of a persuasive narrative, Cohen has nevertheless crafted a series of innovative literary romps. Agent: Georgia Cool, Mary Evans Inc. (Aug.)
From the Publisher

“Cohen, a key member of the United States' under-40 writers' club (along with Nell Freudenberger and Jonathan Safran Foer), is a rare talent who makes highbrow writing fun and accessible.” —Marie Claire

“Powerfully strange. . . . Mr. Cohen's stories are about a lot of things: sex, family, disappointment, literary frustration. . . . But in his new collection, Four New Messages, he nestles these subjects inside a more expansive obsession: how the series of tubes we call the Web has recast, often in sick ways, his contemporaries' sense of who and where and why they are. . . . [T]o sum this up in Web terms, he'll make you want to be an angel investor in his stuff. What's a book but a public offering? You'll want to be in on the ground floor.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“[Cohen has] manifold talents at digging under and around absurdity. . . . Language--not elision--is the primary material of Cohen's oeuvre, and his method of negotiating his way toward meaning is like powering straight through a thick wall of words. . . . The reward is an off-kilter precision, one that feels both untainted and unique.” —Rachel Kushner, The New York Times Book Review

“Smart and well conceived.” —The Nation

“All these stories are replete with clever turns of phrase and memorable lines. . . . Like [David Foster] Wallace, Cohen is clearly concerned with the depersonalizing effects of technology, broken people doing depraved things, and how the two intersect in tragic (and, sometimes, hilarious) ways. The franticness with which he writes about these themes is, at times, Wallace-esque--sentences screaming across the page turbulently, always seemingly one wrong turn from flying apart altogether.” —Boston Globe

“Another exhilarating spectacle from a virtuosic wordsmith.” —Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

“The four novellas included are certainly new--I've never read anything remotely like them--and they're certainly messages, urgent ones addressed to the porn-numb but as yet un-lobotomized members of the iGeneration. Cohen calls out in pimped-out prose that shimmies like a lowride Cutlass. I would advise you all to listen.” —Adam Wilson, Salon, "Salon's Ultimate Book Guide"

“In Mr. Cohen's hands, a meme is a matter of life and death, because he goes from the reality we all know--the link, the click--to the one we tend to forget: the human. . . . Mr. Cohen is ambitious. He is mapping terra incognita.” —New York Observer

“Immoderately brilliant. . . . 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. . . . 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.” —Bookforum

“There is ample evidence that Joshua Cohen is one of the greatest literary minds of his generation. . . . If anything is finally going to get people to admit that he's the new Thomas Pynchon (sans the whole recluse thing) the Graywolf Press published book will be it.” —Flavorpill

“Cohen's comically dense ruminations don't so much as come to a boil as spill over with tales of pornography, hyperviolent video games, consumerism, and depression.” —Interview

“Joshua Cohen has more than four new messages to deliver in this volatile book, all quite urgent. These stories seize us with their brash humor and intellectual reach. But are they startling warning flares or diabolical soul traps? Read them and weep, roar, shudder.” —Sam Lipsyte

Kirkus Reviews
A quartet of cleverly conceived tales that capture our anxieties about living in an increasingly commodified and digitized society. Following his previous novel, Witz (2010, etc.), a satirical epic about the last Jew on earth, this trim collection of short stories seems relatively breezy. But Cohen packs a lot of ideas and syntactical somersaults into a slim book. The opening, "Emission," follows the travails of Richard, a young drug dealer who commits an embarrassing sexual act that all but annihilates his reputation online. Through his desperate efforts to scrub his shame off the Web, Richard reveals how much we're subject to (and exploited by) others' interpretations of our identity. The closing, "Sent," is similarly focused on the Internet and sex, but the treatment is more offbeat, tracing the path of a bed from the craftsman's shop to an ad hoc porn set, then following a journalist whose porn habit catches up with him in curious ways. The sense of unreality in these stories is echoed and bolstered by Cohen's style, which is recursive and sometimes threatens grammatical collapse. Yet the force of his intelligence is always strong, and even at his knottiest, his tone remains conversational. He can push his prose frustratingly deep into abstraction: "McDonald's," a metafictional piece that deploys a dying woman into a symbolic commentary about the titular fast-food chain, is an ungainly blend of the logorrheic and the allegorical. His experimental bent is much better served in "The College Borough," about a group of writing students who build a replica of Manhattan's Flatiron Building on a Midwest college campus. Within the story's metaphorical superstructure, Cohen embeds a tragic, evocative story about writerly struggles to make sense of the world. Cohen doesn't pull off every trick he attempts, but it's a pleasure to witness him test the limits of narrative.
The New York Times
Mr. Cohen's stories are about a lot of things: sex, family, disappointment, literary frustration—the pantry items that stock a young writer's larder…But in his new collection, Four New Messages, he nestles these subjects inside a more expansive obsession: how the series of tubes we call the Web has recast, often in sick ways, his contemporaries' sense of who and where and why they are…[Cohen] writes the type of angst-ridden, brainiac metafiction that's led critics to compare him, aptly enough, to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. His loose ends are part of the splatter effect.
—Dwight Garner

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Graywolf Press
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Read an Excerpt

Four New Messages

By Joshua Cohen

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2012 Joshua Cohen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-058-1



This isn't that classic conceit where you tell a story about someone and it's really just a story about yourself.

My story is pretty simple:

About two years after being graduated from college with a degree in unemployment — my thesis was on Metaphor — I'd moved from New York to Berlin to work as a writer, though perhaps that's not right because nobody in Berlin works. I'm not going to get into why that is here. This isn't history, isn't an episode on the History Channel.

Take a pen, write this on a paper scrap, then when you're near a computer, search:


Alternately, you could just keep clicking your finger on that address until this very page wears out — until you've wiped the ink away and accessed nothing.

However, my being a writer of fiction was itself just a fiction and because I couldn't finish a novel and because nobody was paying me to live the blank boring novel that was my life, I was giving up.

After a year in Berlin, with my German language skills nonexistent, I was going back home. Not home but back to New York, I was going to business school. An M.B.A. It was time to grow up because life is short and even brevity costs. My uncle told me that, and it was his being diagnosed with a boutique sarcoma that — forget it.

Yesterday by close of business was the first time my portfolio ever reached seven figures, so if every author needs an occasion, let this be mine. Sitting in an office when I should be out celebrating my first million — instead remembering these events of five years ago to my keyboard, my screen.

But as I've said this is not about me — no one wants to hear how I'm currently leveraged or about my investments in the privatization of hospitals in China.

I met Mono — I'll always think of him as Mono — only once, a week before I left Neukölln forever. Left the leafy lindens and sluggish Spree, the breakfasts of sausages and cheeses and breads that stretched like communist boulevards into late afternoon, the stretch denim legs of the artist girls pedaling home from their studios on paintspattered single speeds, the syrupy strong coffees the Kurdish diaspora made by midnight at my corner café and its resident narcoleptic who'd roll tomorrow's cigarettes for me, ten smokes for two euros.

I was at a Biergarten, outside on its patio overlooking the water. The patio was abundant with greens: softly flowing ferns, flowers in pails, miniature trees packed into buckets to cut down on the breeze from the brackish canal. It was summer, still the evenings sometimes blew cool. Not this one. This evening was stifling. A few punks, scuzzy but happy, sat mohawked, barechested, feeding decomposing mice to their domesticated ermine. I was about to follow suit, had my shirt halfway up my beergut when he sat down — just when the sun was coming down.

Prose descriptions are safer than photographs (pics) and movies (vids). No one would ever identify the hero of a novel, if he'd come to life, solely by his author's description. Let's face it: Raskolnikov — "his face was pale and distorted, and a bitter, wrathful, and malignant smile was on his lips" — is not being stopped on the street.

Across from me Mono sat reading that novel, in English of course. And English led to English — he asked what beer was I drinking, an Erdinger Dunkel, and ordered the same.

To make conversation I said, Too bad we're being served by the Russian. The Turk — turning my eye to the eye of her hairy navel — is way hotter.

This is not to my credit. To his he just smiled.

It was a tight smile, lips chewing teeth, as if he wasn't sure how fresh his breath was.

I don't know why Mono made such an impression on my premillionaire self — maybe because when you're young and life's a mess, the world is too: young and messy. It could also have been the beer, hopped on malt, its own head turning my head to foam.

I was in my mid 20s, actually in that latter portion of my 20s, spiraling, like how a jetliner crashes, toward 30.

But Mono was young.

He had his decade in front of him.

We covered 30: scary, scary.

Also we discovered we were both from Jersey — me from south, he from central, but still.

Why here?

It was important to deliver this offhand. All expats worry about coming off spoiled or ludicrous, insane.

Why I came here was to write a book, I offered, which isn't working out.

He brought his mouth to his beer, not the other way around. The beard was still growing in.

He swallowed, said, Achtung, and as the sun disappeared told me this story.

Back in Jersey — this was only two months before the time of his telling but anything Jersey felt like years ago, amenitized among diners and turnpikes — Mono was a deliverer.

Like a priest, delivering from sin?

Or a recent arrival from Fujian with the fried rice, the scooter?

No, what Mono brought were drugs.

Drugs paid well but only for those actually supplying. Mono merely supplied the supply. This was not the ideas economy — whatever was supposed to save our country once we'd stopped physically making anything of value.

This was effort, was pick up, drop off, keep all names out of it and deal exclusively in cash. (FYI, Benjamin Franklin is one of only two people featured on bills never to have been US President.)

Mono worked for a man — and he was a man with multiple children and women and not a lost lanky kid like Mono — who called himself Methyl O'Nine (as in cocaine, benzoylmethylecgonine, also zero and nine were the last two digits of his retired pager).

He was a short, slim but muscled, comparatively black man with a ritually dyed henna fleck of a goatee discreet beneath voluminous dreads like plumbing gone awry.

Mono spent weekends moving his product.

Methyl was a hushed seclusive type — not just careful but temperamentally dervish in his sandals and gangsta hoodies — and never wanted his deliverers to know where he lived or with whom he supplied and so he'd meet Mono as he'd meet all the others who did Mono's job, on discrepant dim corners in Trenton.

Whenever he called Mono went and Mono went wherever Mono was called, which meant a lot of driving the Ford from near campus to fields and wharves and the parkinglots of midpriced restaurants.

Ford: bad brakes, transmission with the shakes, used to be his mother's.

Campus: a fancy private university approximately an hour south of New York.

Methyl's customers were mostly students — the idle rich, studiously clubby douches and athletic fratters, the occasional slumming neo-Marxist — but there were also the professors both adjunct and tenured. Some needed the drugs to write the papers, others needed the drugs to grade the papers, all needed the drugs — which they'd snort from atop the papers with rolled paper bills.

The students lived in student housing, the faculty lived in faculty housing (most student and faculty housing was identical), but Mono lived just outside Princeton — sorry, my mistake — in a collapsing bleachers of an apartment complex tenanted exclusively by the lowest paid support staff: the sad diabetics who mopped up the home game vomiting and this one security guard who protected the academics on weekdays but on weekends was regularly arrested in spousal disputes.

Mono hated being thought of as a dealer, as a danger. No respect for his opinion, no regard for his mind. And so he'd intimate deadlines, make allusions to debt, often just outright say it.

Enrolled but in another department.

Grothdyck? I snoozed through his seminar last spring.

I'm not sure if any of the students believed him, though I'm not sure what reason they'd have not to believe him and anyway it wasn't exactly a contradiction to be both enrolled and an impostor, a fine student and seriously druggish, deluded.

Mono's father had taught mathematics at the university — he'd made major advances in knotted polynomials, applied them to engineer a tamperproof model for voting by computer — and so was sure his son's application would be accepted, despite the crappy grades.

But it wasn't, it was rejected.

When he finally sold the house and moved away to chair the math department of a school in California — this was about six months before Mono and I sat together over beers in Berlin — Mono decided to remain.

Mono's mother had died — an aneurysm after a routine jog, a clean body in a bloodless bath — three years before these events. Her death was why his father had wanted to move, though Mono thought his failure to have been admitted to school had an influence — his father's professional humiliation (Mono was a professional at humiliating his father).

And the car his mother left behind precipitated Mono's fight with his father — when the professor began dating a former student or began publicly dating her. She'd brought the largest veggie stix 'n' dip platter to the gathering after the funeral.

She was also from Yerevan — super young and super skinny and tall with curly red hair curled around a crucifix that oscillated between the antennal nipples of her breasts — and as long as we're confusing ourselves with chronology, she was just two years older than Mono.

His mother's ailing Ford became his because his father already had a convertible.

Then one afternoon his father asked, Could you lend Aline your car for the day? She wishes to consolidate her life before the moving.

Mono said he said nothing.

His father tried again, Could you drive her yourself, to assist with the boxes?

Mono explained:

That was his father's way of telling him that Aline was coming to Cali.

My mother's car? Mono finally asked.

But you can forget about Aline. She's pregnant with Mono's half brother in Palo Alto and this is her last appearance.

At the time Mono's name was not yet Mono. That name was as new as Berlin.

Like monolingual, he'd said when we shook hands (his hand was sweaty).

Whereas the surname he'd been given was much more distinctively foreign. Not that he was supposed to divulge that name to his customers — to them, until he ruined himself, he was only Dick.

To get him to loiter outside your dorm or stand around licking fingers to count bills on the rickety porch of an offcampus sorority, you dialed Methyl, who'd say, He be calling a minute before he shows. Name of Dick.

Dick would usually show up within a half hour and though he was supposed to only get paid and leave, he never followed Methyl's instructions.

Instead he'd play older brother, stacking used plastic cups, making troughs of new ice, holding class presidents steady upsidedown for kegstands, reveling in free drinks and ambient vagina until recalled to work with a vibrating msg: NW6, say (Trenton's North Ward location six, where he'd make the night's next pickup — Methyl didn't trust anyone out with more than three deliveries at a time).

Dick stayed out later the later in the night he was called and so on a 3 AM delivery to a party that had run out that a colleague, Rex, had delivered earlier that evening, a party pumping for six or seven hours already through music playlists both popularly appropriate and someone's stepdad's collection of Dylan bootlegs and whose mixer juices and tonics had been exhausted, Dick would not be moved, especially not when a girl — the same girl who'd called Methyl, who'd told his deliverer to expect a female customer — threw arms around him and said:

They sent you this time!

Dick, who prided himself on remembering all his customers, couldn't be sure whether this girl, Em, was pretending to remember him or just wasted — and this should have been his first warning.

The couch, the absorbent couch, furniture in appearance like a corkscrew coil of shit — brown cushions, black backing worn shiny — soaking in the boozy spill and smoke of years, intaking fumes and fluids through the spongy membrane of its upholstery. They sat there, he and this girl who knew him only as Dick — this townie fake gownie and though he didn't know it yet the daughter of a Midwestern appliances manufacturer who maintained, this daughter did, upward of thirty anonymous weblogs: Stuff to Cook When You're Hungover, Movies I Recently Saw About Niggers, My Big Gay Milkshake Diary, The Corey News (which warned of the depredations of child stardom), What I've Heard About Bathrooms in North America — all irregularly updated but all updated.

They sat doing lines — is that my line? that's your line? this line's mine — and all was weightlessly intimate until Em turned to him and said:

This is from yours right?

Dick didn't answer immediately so she asked again.

This is on you?

Dick said, Sure.


Whatever. We'll figure it out.

Em said, No not whatever. No figuring. Say it for me!

He felt like he had to stop himself from peeling her lips off her face as if they were price stickers, like they were designer labels as she said again:

Say it for me! This is your supply.

He said, This is your supply.

Em smiled.

OK, this is my shit. This shit is mine.

And she laughed and said, Dick! I'm so glad they sent you!

And he said, Actually only people who work for me call me Dick. My name's really Rich.



Rich hard what?

I'd show you my license, if I had it.

He'd been craving this opportunity to brag.

I was jumped last month in Philly, rival dealers, took my narcotics and wallet (a lie: he'd been drugfree on his way to a bartending job interview, the muggers barely pubescent, three kids as stubby as their switchblades).

You don't carry ID?

He reached into a pocket, found his passport, passed it around.

Em flipped through it, Did you enjoy Mexico?

I went with my parents.

You were an ugly child.

Discussions were: over changing the music and so changing the mood, about what band was good or bad in which years and with which personnel — is playing the bass harder than it looks? does a true leadsinger have any business playing guitar?

Anyway what kind of person would say which — personnel as opposed to lineup? leadsinger as opposed to frontman?

Is this coke cut? is all coke cut? and how is that not the same as lacing?

What innocents they were, Dick thought — the purity was theirs, not the drug's.

This one guy said, There was this girl I used to go out with who was the transitional girlfriend of a kid who starred in like every fucking movie.

Who was it? the party wanted to know, what every fucking movie was he in?

The guy told them.

Famous right? crazy crazy famous? Girls saved his face into screensavers, produced ringtones out of his voice. She was with him for three months off and on. Then I was with her and after our third or fourth date we had sex and you know what she said to me after?


She said: Peter, before you having sex was just like staring at the ceiling.

Like what?

Again: like staring at the ceiling.

And that night that coital praise became an inside joke, like, whatchacallit, a party trope.

When someone went to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and retrieved another beer for you it was, Before you drinking beer was just like staring at the ceiling, when someone tapped out a thick fat line for you with their parents' Platinum Plus Visa card on the glass slab tiered above the baize bottom of the house's threequartersize poker table it was, Before you coke was just like staring at the ceiling, then that prefatory endearment was dropped with the tense and it was only, This couch is just like staring at the ceiling, This floor is just like staring at the ceiling, This ceiling's just like staring at the ceiling.

You had to be there but you're lucky you weren't.

Somebody left to buy the ingredients to bake a pie, somebody left to buy a pie, somebody left.

Cakes v. pies were debated, cupcakes v. muffins were too, the salient differences between them, the identities of the world's greatest lacrosse players were discussed, various names proposed both at the college level and pro. Pressing questions asked and answered: What's more degrading, working as a stripper or working as a maid? What's the best position to have re: Iran — preemptive strikes or sanctions inevitably targeting women and children? What's the best sexual position for virginity loss — for a man, for a woman, for a child? Is there a future for campaign finance reform after the veritable abortion of Citizens United v. FEC? If you could repeal any amendment to the Constitution, which (no one allowed anymore to pick the first ten, whichever amendment repealed Prohibition, or the thirteenth, fourteenth, or fifteenth)? If you were a fart, what type (how wet, what smell)? Ten Most Mortifying Moments? Most egregious party foul? If you could describe your entire life in only one word to only one dead grandparent, which grandparent and what word?


Mono's apartment had been advertised as a one bedroom but having remitted the deposit he admitted to himself, why not, it was a studio. What the realtor maintained made it a one bedroom was a small little nothing nook by the door so minuscule that whenever Mono wanted to open the door he had to move the television onto the bed. His TV slept better than he did. The door's peephole had been blackened for a robbery. The window opposite gave onto parkinglot, he never kept it open, gas. On the floor, lotto stubs, scratchers he'd scratch with teeth. Underlabeled whiskey under the label. Flies at the bottom of a liter of cola. In the bathroom clothing hung from the showerhead smelling alternately feculent and moldy. The sink was mustached with shavings. He'd been using takeout napkins as toiletpaper for a month. The sounds he'd hear by morning were those of mice the size of his pinky sprayed newborn from the walls or, once, the whining die of the smokedetector's batteries. The apartment had no light because the bulbs had burnt out and he never remembered to replace them. Anyway Mono was rarely home at night and the television was enough light and the computer was sufficient too.


Excerpted from Four New Messages by Joshua Cohen. Copyright © 2012 Joshua Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in New Jersey. He is the author of five books, including A Heaven of Others and Witz. His nonfiction has appeared in Bookforum, The Forward, Harper's and other publications. He lives in New York City.

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