Pushcart 2013: Joshua Cohen, “Emission” from The Paris Review, Spring 2011

Internet Census 2012 by "Carna Botnet"

Internet Census 2012 by “Carna Botnet”

This isn’t that classic conceit where you tell a story about someone and it’s really just a story about yourself.
My story is pretty simple:

Right up front: I had a hard time following this story. I see some interviews and reviews describe it (or Cohen) as “brainiac metafiction” a la DFW and Pynchon, or “modernism’s true heir” travelling in the footsteps of Joyce and Beckett (most of whom I’ve nervously avoided so far), and that doesn’t surprise me. I get the sense this story is a shade too fond of its own sophistication. I don’t (yet) get what distinguishes the off-the-wall Giants from the rantings of adolescents (and bloggers) everywhere, but I’ll accept that as my limitation.

Still… there was something about it that grabbed me. A lot of somethings, actually.

The overall setting of the Internet, for starters. The use of language: techniques that kept me jotting notes in the margins (how he tells!), the clever metaphors (including the one on metaphor), what’s unsaid, the title itself, the use of POV.

In the end, I’m left with a hard-to-read story I greatly admire, with authorial decisions I don’t quite understand (particularly with regard to one POV switch, and the ending which seems to just stop) but would like to explore. And I’m left at a loss as to how to discuss any of it.

I could start with the central story – man vs. blogger.

What you do in private is your business, until it becomes public, and then it’s your employer’s business, especially if your employer’s employed by the government of the United States. War’s all about image – and effective chaplaincy and counterinsurgency.
Come again?
You need to clear your profile, son.
My profile, what about it?
Your presence, you need to clean your presence.
I’m not following, and Mono canvassed his apartment, wondering whether the man had a camera focused on him or was just intuitive.
The Internet, Muggs said, are you aware of your Internet?

Mono was not aware of his Internet.

Richard Monomian, aka Mono, Princeton rejectee (in spite of his father’s professorship) turned drug dealer and partier with customers, finds one of those customers, a lovely young thing named Em with whom he shared a few lines until he had to leave for his next delivery, has posted something fairly disgusting about him on a blog; this is why he hasn’t been able to land as much as an interview for a legit job.

Within a week a hundred-plus results all replicated his name as if each letter of it – those voluble, oragenital os, were a mirror for a stranger’s snorting, reflecting everywhere the nostrils of New York, Los Angeles, Reykjavík, Seoul, as thousands cut this tale for bulk and laced with detail, tapped it into lines and his name became a tag for abject failure, for deviant, for skank.
To pull a Monomian.
To go Monomian.
Fucking Monomian.

The story follows his efforts to “clean his presence” via a rent-a-paralegal found – how else – via internet (for a while, I toyed with the idea that she was actually Em, perhaps that everyone in the story, maybe the world, was Em, but no, that would be the rantings of an adolescent) leading to further complications necessitating a hasty flight to Europe.

Pretty cool set-up, right? But to me, this central plot is merely the vehicle for narrative and linguistic play. It’s really a story about the transmission of information.

For instance, it isn’t Mono telling the story, or even a standard third-person narrator. No; the story opens with the first quote above, and of course, the minute someone assures me something is not the case – something I never would have thought of if he hadn’t mentioned it – I assume it is the case, and this is his story. But more importantly, what it does is set up this pattern of revealing information in interesting ways – not through media like the internet, but through narrative method. To me, that’s what the story is about; the plot is there because, well, sure, it has to be, right?

So the story is told to us by a unnamed first-person narrator who meets Mono at a biergarten in Berlin, shares his own tale of what he’s doing there (an interesting enough tale in itself – he “graduated from college with a degree in unemployment – my thesis was on Metaphor – ” and after spending two years in Berlin trying to write a book, was returning to New York for B-school, which will lead to him making his first million five years later at which point he’ll relate this tale… all of which has nothing whatsoever to do with the story, but it’s a great page of intro and begins this mindworm of how we tell stories, how we send and receive information, and adds some level of stupidity, or maybe naïveté, to Mono’s character, since if we believe there is a Mono, he’s on the run in Berlin for reasons that will become clear and here he’s telling some stranger in a bar his whole life story…), and listens to Mono tell his story. Then tells us.

Kind of makes my head spin. But there’s more about how we tell. How the author tells us:

Mono’s mother had died – an aneurysm after a routine job, a clean body in a bloodless bath – three years before these events….And the car his mother left behind precipitated Mono’s fight with his father – when the professor began dating a former student or began publicly dating her. She’d brought the largest veggie-stix-‘n’-dip platter to the gathering after the funeral.

How Mono’s father, moving to California, tells Mono:

Then one afternoon his father asked, Could you lend Aline your car for the day? She swishes to consolidate her life before the moving.
Mono said he said nothing.
His father tried again, Could you drive her yourself, to assist with the boxes?
Mono explained:
That was his father’s way of telling him that Aline was coming to Cali.
My mother’s car? Mono finally asked.
But you can forget about Aline. She’s pregnant with Mono’s half-brother in Palo Alto and this is her last appearance.

Notice the slippery narration, tenses, and of course the lack of anything so mundane as quotation marks, all of which contribute to the difficulty, and the intricacy, of the read. Is Aline now pregnant, or was she back then at the time of the moving (about eight years ago), or was she at the time of the conversation (five years ago)? If she herself is so unimportant to the story, is this little detail of timing important, a clue to just whose story this is, anyway? Or am I overreading again?

I don’t think so. Towards the end of the story, there’s a switch in narrative POV to close third person observation of a character who couldn’t possibly have been observed. This is where the story ran off the rails for me on first read, because I’m pretty trusting. Lesson: paranoia is not necessarily a disease. Lesson 2: If you’re feeling the need to confess something, watch out for your narrative POVs, they’ll betray you every time.

I read this story the week after the Steubenville rape trial (the timing of my readings always amazes me), when all the legal analysts were falling all over themselves feeling sorry for the poor boys whose lives were ruined forever just because they assumed they had a right to have sex with any woman who couldn’t fight them off; when everyone was warning girls not to drink, not warning boys not to rape unconscious teens. The story isn’t about a rape, but it’s about as close as you can get, and it seemed to me everyone, from the narrator to a reviewer who described Mono as “kind” because he talked to his coke customers, was seeing Mono as the victim here, his life ruined merely because he chose to… leave an emission in the hand of girl passed out at a party. Then told another girl about it. Those girls, it’s all their fault.

But here’s the thing: I can’t tell, having read the story twice-plus, if the incident Em posted about Mono was what he told her, something he made up and told her, or something she made up, just for the fun of it. It makes a big difference, and I doubt this, hmmm, omission of emission, was by accident.

So what do you do with a story that has a villain, but you’re not sure which character it is? When you have the ultimate unreliable narrator? Maybe you look at it as a story about the methodology and character of emissions.

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One response to “Pushcart 2013: Joshua Cohen, “Emission” from The Paris Review, Spring 2011

  1. Pingback: Pushcart 2013: Ain’t More Thing to Climb* | A Just Recompense

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