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.