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An Interview with Joshua Cohen

Matthew Johnston

Joshua Cohen was born in New Jersey in 1980. He has written short fiction including “Four New Messages” (2012), nonfiction for Harper’s, London Review of Books, n+1, and the New York Times, as well as a book-length essay: ATTENTION!: A (short) History (2013). His best-known novels are Witz (2010), Book of Numbers (2015), and most recently Moving Kings, published this year in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions. He was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists 2017. On October 7th 2017, the Oxonian Review and Fitzcarraldo Editions put on an event at Modern Art Oxford as part of Cohen’s brief but intense European book tour for Moving Kings. The interview below is an abridged transcript of that evening’s conversation between Cohen and Matthew Johnston.

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Matthew Johnston: I wonder if you could begin by talking a little about a really obvious feature of the formal shift from your previous two novels to this one. Moving Kings simply isn’t a massive, sprawling, self-reflexive epic in the same postmodern tradition. Instead it’s streamlined and taut and relatively conventionally plotted. All of your characteristic verbal pyrotechnics––the neologisms, the stylish compound nouns, perfectly paced but surprising sentences––are still there, of course, but there’s nothing in this latest novel like the central section of Book of Numbers (the unfinished and hypertechnical manuscript-within-a-book) or like the relentless punning and allusivity that overflows throughout Witz. Do you view this as a process of maturing? Did you set out deliberately to write a more, and excuse these terms, “entertaining” or “accessible” novel, or was it a case of this form being more appropriate to the subject matter?

Joshua Cohen: That’s it, I was trying to make some money [laughs]. I mean, between Witz and Book of Numbers I wrote a tiny nonfiction book about “attention” or the history of the idea of “attention” and I wrote a tiny fiction book, a collection of short fictions, called Four New Messages – neither was longer than 200 pages. But, you know, if you wear glasses and shave infrequently, and if even one, just one, of your early books is big, physically big, then you get called a maximalist. I don’t feel like a maximalist though. To my mind, that’s more of a generational identifier. The 1990s. Or the 1990s reaction against the 1970s. In writing Moving Kings, as in writing another littler novel of mine, my littlest novel, A Heaven of Others, I had in mind a certain plan or schema – a set of events to be imposed on the characters, to be determinative of character. A bit of Bildung, then, or of speculum literature. The larger books, by contrast, are worlds.

MJ: That leads sort of neatly into the next thing I wanted to ask you about. An element of your work I’m really drawn to or interested in is the relation you draw up between fictional plot and paranoid fantasy. This is obviously dealt with more explicitly in Book of Numbers, but I think Moving Kings also expresses this question of whether evidence that seems to support theories of secret networks of significance and correspondence, or covert modes of oppression is really to be found out there in the world or if it exists only in the crazed mind of the person who discerns it. There are, for example, these necessarily shadowy background figures or forces in the novel––warmongers on one side, and then on the other the WASPy billionaire world David resents not being able to infiltrate (and who his removal and eviction business ultimately serves)––who are marked by their outsourcing of violence. But they’re not exactly ‘secret.’ You seem to me among the writers working today who most directly addresses this issue of conspiracy in fiction, and I think you’re doing it in a quite different way to the way that a lot of 70s American writers were; I was hoping you could elaborate on that.

JC: Ah, the 70s. That’s the generation that in America was seeking a secret plan or schema behind everything – the generation of paranoia and conspiracy. Which all now feels so quaint to me. So antiquated. Because now, let’s be honest, in the age of hacking, what is hidden? What remains suspected? To put it another way, if the question for, say, Mailer and Pynchon was “Is this true?” the question for me, today, is “How can we live it?” My major criticism of some of the major 70s novels has to do with the neatness and logic of their cabals: how there’s always a source being sought, an explanation, an intention, a purpose. It’s almost religious, almost comically religious, this search for who or what is controlling us, which search is merely a way of avoiding or refusing to accept the fundamental messiness of the world. The foundational messiness and stupidity of the world. Think of this concept of the American Deep State, or think of the emotions and expectations that Americans under Trump have invested in this concept. It’s poignant. It’s, as Trump himself would say, sad. That so many people, even so many people who’d call themselves “libertarians,” are so publicly hoping that the FBI or CIA protects them – that the FBI or CIA stages a coup. Or the notion of the military being “responsible” and “professional” enough to stop Trump from doing something catastrophic. The idiotic notion of “the adults in the room.” Every day makes it breathtakingly obvious, at least breathtakingly obvious to me, that not only are there no “adults,” there isn’t even a “room.” Just chaos. Getting back to books, though, I’d say that of the generation I’ve just been indicting, DeLillo knows this best. He knows that his sentences must provide the shapeliness, the formal clarity, lacking in our governance.

In Moving Kings I was trying to have no secrets. I didn’t even want to hide a metaphor. Instead, I wanted to lay everything out. With a guy who’d served in an occupying army in Palestine (which he’d never call “Palestine,” of course) relocating to New York and getting a new occupation, as a mover – as an eviction mover in the outerboroughs. The metaphor is there not for the reader, or not just for the reader – this guy, my hero, gets it too. He’s the one who senses the rhyme between the two situations – between the two contexts, let’s say, of dispossession. He’s the one who has to live that rhyme. It’s in his face. It’s daily. And because it is, he has deal with it – he’s forced to interrogate his certainties, he’s forced to weigh his actions. Why a person becomes politicized, how and where and when a person comes to grapple with the moral or ethical implications of his job, will always be more interesting, because more familiar, to me than “can I identify the manipulative global systems at work behind the scenes?”

MJ: I’d agree with that. So, I know that Christian Lorentzen is a friend of yours, and I wanted to ask you about his essay from the beginning of this year in which he argues that the issue of authenticity or the search for it became an obsession, even the definitive characteristic, of fiction produced during the Obama years. He says that this has led to the proliferation of styles and trends including autofiction, fables of meritocracy, novels set in the recent past (i.e. not the “sterile,” “inauthentic” present), and trauma narratives. I read Book of Numbers as, among other things, a kind of parody of autofiction or autobiographical metafiction. I guess what I wanted to ask was whether you found something particularly fertile and/or inherently ridiculous in this climate where truth or authenticity is prized so highly, or what effect that’s had on the kind of writing you want to do.

JC: I won’t, I can’t, speak for Christian, but speaking for myself, I think autofiction’s problem is also the reason for its popularity, or the reason for its popularity among critics. Autofiction gets to the heart of why people read. Why do you sit on a train or a bus with a book? Are you pursuing knowledge, or self-knowledge, or are you using the book as a type of mating call, or as a sexual- or class-signifier? Autofiction answers the question of why people read in a very direct way: people read for sociology, or anthropology – people read to make comparisons, between their own lives and the life of the protagonist-writer, between the ways they’ve handled or not handled the issues of love and marriage and fidelity and money and child-having and child-rearing and so on, and the ways the protagonist-writer has handled or not handled same. It’s all just literacy-as-anxiety: how am I doing compared to how this published author is doing? How do I stack up? In that sense, autoficition combines the, in my opinion, deadly impulses of the religious and the bourgeois, in that it’s part Classical wisdom literature (how to live, how not to live), and part Victorian novel of “information” (providing data on how people – privileged people – dress, eat, have sex, and manage to pay for all of it). This depresses me. This need for guidance. This need for models. The constant craving and tracking of status that bespeaks an alienation from family and friends, that delicate but necessary democratic equilibrium of individual ambition and common culture. Autofiction is what comes after that: scorekeeping, a metric.

MJ: Somewhat relatedly, as well as a novelist and story writer, you work as a critic. I can already predict from the short conversation we had outside before the event that your first comment about this will be, “Yes, to pay the bills,” right? But beyond that, would you say that your work as a critic informs your fiction? I ask this specifically because of something James Wood suggested in his New Yorker review of Moving Kings: namely that you sort of anticipated certain critical responses and then built them into the texture of the novel. He seemed to be saying this was somehow cynical, but I’d disagree. I think it can be a generative impulse. There’s a whole history to that kind of procedure that demonstrates there are interesting things to be got out of it. Can you, or how do you, separate writing criticism from writing fiction? What’s been the place of criticism in your work?

JC: It’s to make a living, or it was for a while. I’m of the last generation that was able to make a living by writing literary criticism for print: magazines and newspapers. I did that for about a decade. But that existence just isn’t feasible anymore. Rather: it isn’t available to anyone under 40. Which is to say, my writing has been most affected not by criticism, but by the absence of criticism. Thanks, Obama.

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Matthew Johnston completed an M.St in twentieth- and twenty-first century literature at Oxford in 2015. He currently lives and works in London.