Cohen (Moving Kings, 2017, etc.), selected as a Granta Best Young American Novelist, has been turning out big, daunting novels, and this collection of his journalistic pieces rivals them in scope and density.
As he writes in a short preface, people today are way too distracted: “We’re becoming too disparate, too dissociated—searching for porn one moment, searching for genocide the next—leaving behind stray data that cohere only in the mnemotech of our surveillance.” It’s time to pay attention, and reading these often challenging and acute essays is a start. Cohen opens with a nostalgic piece on the demise of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which felt like the “death of jazz, or the death of the blues.” Then, it’s off to Atlantic City, where he once had a summer job in a casino, and a “cotton-candy-haired clown who crashed the AC party late and left it early and ugly”—Donald Trump. Next up is a piece critical of Bernie Sanders, soon followed by one on a favorite writer of Cohen’s, Thomas Pynchon, and news of a new book by him. Then Cohen discusses the “deliriously acquisitive music of John Zorn,” Aretha Franklin (“like Annie Oakley, she could hit anything”), Beyoncé, and Glenn Greenwald’s “decent” Edward Snowden, who “excoriated the surveillance state.” Throughout the collection, Cohen displays impressive range. He’s equally comfortable discussing philosophy, politics, German metaphysics, Anna Kavan, Georges Perec, Mario Vargas Llosa, the internet, and Google—not to mention creating an abecedarium honoring Paris’ rogue English-language publisher Obelisk. Jewishness, so prevalent in Cohen’s fiction, is generously represented here as well. Sometimes overly stylistically pyrotechnic, the author refuses to wear his learning lightly, which occasionally stifles and snuffs out the good stuff.
Some readers will find Cohen’s writing too disparate and snarky, but for those comfortable with the Vollmann/Gass/Eggers school of writing, these essays are the cat’s meow.