Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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By now you’ve likely heard of this book, since, akin to the plot of one of its four stories, news went
viral, reputation, buzz garnering attention for this text’s being, supposedly, a
this-is-your-mind-on-the-Internet treatment, a book about the new tube-linked sort of psyche, how what we are is
nodes in the web of consumerism, social media posting, the faux-social-advertising complex. Or something. Hell,
maybe you clicked a little thumb, dragged an icon to your to-read shelf and nestled it above a row of empty
The always surprising thing about the new is its striking familiarity. Here are the concerns, roughly encapsulated (think of these as pitches, if it feels better): shameful infamy via blog post; language as trademarked, the proprietary domain of a corporate concern; in the third story, instead of writing, students of writing install wiring, pipes. All very meta: writing about writing, like other things you’ve read on the process, its travails, the ramifications of location in late-capitalist whatever.
Think of those Escher posters popular in dorm rooms, once. 1: the cruelty of the sometimes anonymous digi-social. 2: a franchise name, its presence ubiquitous and thus strengthened in eschewal. 3: manual reproduction, actual nuts and bolts, in a world of digitized ideation and creativity bemoaning creativity while reflection on the processes and means of creativity. Selah.
There is a broad generation too young to have studied semiotics at Brown, who, rather, grew up making ironic references to that program. Much in this book that repels the reader, in terms of style. Like certain David Foster Wallace work, it can read like an in-joke of a clique to which you are not welcome, will never be initiated. The prose pyrotechnics, so considered, can simply be a pain to read, sentences arced like a sharpening strop. Two selections from the same page say something about style. Exhibit A:
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.
And Exhibit B: “Prose descriptions are safer than photographs (pics) and movies (vids).”
The first puts its back into the oaring, and there is something precious in the assemblage. I am enamored of it, but it reads like a Sudoku square. The second aims to illustrate something, that we have new terms and new ways of thinking, hyperlinked, by reading like a tax form, an instruction manual for some electrical apparatus. This gets us references to the specific decimal-marked “terms” of our contemporary existence: “an unreconstructed gastrophile when traveling, a compulsive cuisiniste who keeps files on restaurants, .docs and .xls spreadsheets of what dishes and deals can be had on what days where.” As well as an accumulation, like a set of tabs popping up from the same page, of actions: “had downloaded discount admissions . . . scanned vouchers . . . one or two interactive museums.” An itinerary imagined first by the corporations, however small or start-up, of designers and tipping-point-coupon vendors and aggregators and databasers. Certainly, this is our world: we may as well see it. But the cold sense here is that we’re only seeing it so we can see that we saw it and say so, and be impressed: “I’m trying to tell you the story by not telling you the story, I said, you should be aware that this is what writers regularly do.” Well, duh. What does the rest of the workshop think?
So there are some problems, foremost being what we might call an insularity, walls of cleverness with language constructed as a kind of play-fort, only with the result of seeming, to the reader, not such an impressive feat of engineering and, worse, like a world that is only wonderful and fresh to the person inside, which is a position we’re not offered.
I requested to review this book because the aforementioned buzz claimed not only that our wired world was somehow spectacularly treated here but that, in particular, those aspects of our online existence that involve pornography, ubiquitous access, perhaps even desensitization, certainly alterations in behavior and expectations, the shape of desires. And here it is the fourth and final, long, segmented story that deserves our attention.
Hello my name is Moc and today I make my first sex on camera. Just for you @ first-sexy-on-camera.com.
Try it again.
Hello my name is Moc and today I make sex with cameras. Just for you @ first-sexy-camera.com.
Say it com, not cum—do you know what that means?
Hello my name is Moc.
Can you stop? I asked you a question. Cum—don’t you know what that means?
Cum means open your mouth and take what I give you. Cum means open your fucking mouth and take it.
“Sent” has elements of fairytale, warped and tweaked, to touch on the violence inherent in the
pornography industry and, as I read it, to touch on the violence of consumption, participation in that odd
mutation of capitalist logic whereby one participates in a system of exchange through advertising, through
passive presence of your eyes on a given image, even if the actual “product” being taken and
used—downloaded and paused, juxtaposed with another window, etc.—is free. “This site he
frequented on select evenings and weekends and weekday mornings and afternoons loaded new vids daily,
that’s how they’d advertised at first, ‘Tens of New Vids Daily,’ then it was
‘Dozens of New Vids Daily,’ and then in flusher times (flush the fraught tissue down the toilet),
just ‘New Vids Daily Cum Check Them Out’...”
Here is a story, then, that is not entirely about writing. There are reflections on process and technology (“That day might have seen this girl’s first sex on camera, but not on film—nobody used film. Rather they used a format more indestructible, yet even more evanescent—Digital.”), that are not always brilliant. Some, like that parenthetically cradled line, an editor might have been wise to cut. “And finally—after the rubber was removed to unleash another manner of voluble across a girl’s eyebrows—there’d be an outro Q & A, postmortem” strikes me differently, for here, in my opinion, the fanciness of the writing—the dexterity of an O.E.D. unleashed, with a real ear for sound echoes and a kind of utopian vernacular swing—is put to good use, starkly framing the subject matter.
The real, in short, becomes 1) cruel comedy (“blackbrown hair with streaks of blonder dye like the markings of an insecure woodland pest runover by a van on a highway also striped like her hair...”), 2) ornate grotesquery (“how when she’s on top her tits turn dizzying circles, how when he doggies her her breasts hang down like lucent bunches of fruit, like lamped grapes the veins”), 3) blunt social commentary in the form of a truism of thought (“He wanted a different life, a new life. Which should have been as easy as buying something.”), 4) an actual delicate phrase of poetry, out of even the most intentionally abject (“a tracery of drool”).
Combine tactics 1 through 4: “The daughter she gave birth to, though she resembled initially a wad of chewing gum, grew up—her ridges stretching into shapely arms and legs, the bubbles in her inflating further into impressive breasts. She was to be a person of more plastics and faster cars, of more freedom.” My feeling was that the first three stories here were so much padding, pieces to be cleared from a desk. Here, in the fourth, Cohen begins to either think seriously about his skills or, maybe, simply respond, reflexively, his talents matching the subject matter such that the content—its moral weight, its girth as social phenomenon, the lineaments of what it touches on in the fields of theory—helps that talent pop.
For plot, a consumer of pornography encounters the women to whom he has masturbated. More or less. A male consumer, though some attention is given to the male producers and facilitators, as well. That matters, the male point of view, even from the actor scrubbing his hairlessness, after. It also matters that the women here are Eastern European European—“Masha, Sasha, Svetlana (trans. Luminance)—and they are themselves but aren’t, as they were both onscreen and you have to guess in life itself, but not.” Cohen seems simultaneously to want to explore the link between porn and slavery, American masturbatory habits and wars over resources and sovereignty, the excess of .jpeg and .gif files here in the land of plenty with the excessive poverty and thus basic longing—“more plastics and faster cars, of more freedom”—elsewhere and to exotify these women, these images given backstory but not agency, rendered human in that small sense that a glimpse of a something caged renders it whole. Consider:
She was born atop a tiny speck of static blown just outside Vedeno, Vedensky District, Chechnya, a mudspot like a mortifying stain on the dress of the land. Must be laundered, must be treadwashed by tanks. Russian was not her native language, she had no dialogue, she was frequently silent. Her home, an apartment complex hastily built to gird Vedeno’s outskirts, has been almost totally destroyed. It was, by the time of her leaving, that proverbial heap of concrete surrounded by field the color of a suicidebombed circus and the miry consistency of mad tigress dung. The following things, things being weaknesses, made her cry: faded wallpaper in a scythe pattern similar to what they had in the kitchen of her family’s apartment (but every family had similar wallpaper), last cigarettes not shared, dying ficus placed by unsunned windows (in apartments where none of the windows were sunned), cold tea—and now, for the uninitiated, the briefest of history lessons: border skirmishes by separatist guerrillas vs. Russians, Russian army incursions, hilariously vituperative decades of on again off again conflict you might’ve caught on television or not.
I find this beautiful in some ways, but haunted, too. Not by anything so simple as cynicism, whatever that would
mean, but Cohen’s own masturbatory relation to his own cleverness. This is a starkly solipsistic paragraph,
in which—just as in a given “vid”—the woman becomes a cipher for the manipulations of an
“artist.” The story here is a costume, a series of contorted postures. What interests Cohen is Cohen,
like some amateur in a gonzo gang scene reveling in the strength and volume of the facial he’s just
unloaded. What matters is his product, and in the final stroke and stutter, drip, he could be absolutely
alone, the last being in the universe, and the act and the feeling would be the same.
But don’t take my image for it. Here’s Cohen, in the same story, ostensibly about porn and porn-makers, porn-consumers, porn-products, those women who become preserved as moments in some non-dying digital loop:
A man thrashed his wife whose head spurted oil—another billion, trillion—a googillionaire. A man from the next town over, it was said, always just the next town, battered the gut of his pregnant wife and their son was born fluent in C++ and Chinese. Soon he had women at his door lining three deep, begging him to go to work on their issue. Then yet another nouveau oligarch who’d kickstarted his fortune marketing fire extinguishers through the Baltics or Balkans, parlaying that lode into funding lucrative eCommerce interests—it was said (apparently, it even made international headlines), he intended to launch a blue whale into space and was designing a shuttle whose fuselage would be equipped with a seawater tank. Once safely in orbit, the tank’s hatch would open, releasing the water and whale to float dead forever in blackness—our earth a bruise the size of its eye...
Ladies and gentlemen: the writer, the masturbateur. Hence it’s fitting to start this review with
talk of the buzz, the going viral: this book, in the end, felt like some very private exercise, somehow posted
out in the world and clicked on, read. But I couldn’t and can’t shake the feeling that there is a
pleasure and purpose here for Cohen alone. Not that others won’t enjoy some of his prose routines,
high-wire and tongue-in-cheek low-brow (“porned” as a verb!), but ultimately these pages are a
demonstration, and an uneven one, an orgy of unchecked (lightly edited) self-indulgence. Cohen is a clever
writer, but I’d rather see him tackle a challenge than do these self-satisfying, silly tricks.
Official Joshua Cohen Web Site
Official Graywolf Press Web Site