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James Wood on Joshua Cohen

The New Yorker critic raves and so do we

Adam Chandler
December 20, 2012
James Wood(TNY)
James Wood(TNY)

The first author to garner mention in James Wood’s Books of the Year list for the New Yorker is a fella named Joshua Cohen, whose collection “Four New Stories” made a pretty big splash this year. Wood writes:

The first is “Four New Messages” (Graywolf Press), a collection of stories by Joshua Cohen. These were a revelation. I’d never read anything by Joshua Cohen, and I fear that I have no better excuse than laziness: his last book was an enormous, challenging, eight-hundred-page novel called “Witz” (Dalkey Archive). I was attracted by that novel’s title—Italo Svevo, one of my favorite novelists, was addicted to Witze, witty paradoxes and jokes, such as his response to Joyce’s apparently smug comment that he never used coarse language but only wrote it: “It would appear then that his works are not ones that could be read in his own presence.” But “enormous” and “challenging”—especially “enormous”—too often mean, alas, in a life with young children and teaching and writing, skimming the first few pages and replacing said book on the shelf with an embarrassed sigh… some day, some day.

I didn’t have to wait long, because Cohen, who can apparently write about anything, isn’t waiting to be read. He exists to write. (At the age of thirty-two, he’s already published more books, and surely more pages, than many writers in their fifties.) And he certainly can write! There are four stories in “Four New Messages,” and though I only really liked the first and last, those two are remarkable—intelligent, lyrical, prosaic, theoretical, pragmatic, funny, serious. His best prose does everything at once. He can move from a very clever, David Foster Wallacian phrase like “diagnosed with a boutique sarcoma” or “just her face and, regretfully, perhaps the top cleave of her breasts” or “same gist, different oblast” (the last story is partly set in Russia, and reads like a sad inversion of “Dead Souls”), to this perfect piece of realism, a lyrical and plangent evocation of Berlin, a kind of up-to-date Joseph Roth: “The leafy lindens and sluggish Spree, the breakfasts of sausages and cheeses and breads that stretch like communist boulevards in late afternoon, the stretch denim legs of the artist girls pedaling home from their studios on paint-spattered 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 excited to read this young writer, and uncalmly await more.

While Wood–one of this era’s most respected literary critics–uncalmly awaits more, I thought I would take the chance to direct readers to a piece of Joshua Cohen’s original fiction recently published here on Tablet. The story is called “Fat” and it is a fantastic read. Check it out.

Related: Fat [Tablet]
James Woods: Books of the Year [TNY]

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.