We send messages every day. Thoughtlessly, dutifully, compulsively. In 21st-century America, sending messages is how we communicate.
But sometimes "sending a message" has another connotation, whereby the act of doing one thing communicates something else. A politician who opens her campaign in her opponent's hometown "sends a message" that she's going to be aggressive. A man who takes his wife to the Italian restaurant where he proposed is declaring more than a desire for meatballs. These messages are metaphors in action.
Four New Messages, Joshua Cohen's collection of four long stories, opens with its most accessible tale. "Emission" is about a drug dealer named Mono who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's not a drug deal but a social contract that goes awry.
Late one night at a party, Mono commits the most heinous of 21st-century offenses: He over-shares. Unfortunately for Mono, someone uses the information to put his future in jeopardy. This "nocturnal emission" is both a metaphor for his offense and the substance (sorry) of the story he shares.
"Emission" is a cautionary tale, of and for our time, about a man's attempt to control a message that he doesn't want out in the world. In other words, it's the story of a fool.
In "McDonald's," the next story, the conflict centers on an author's reluctance to mention the name of a fast-food corporation in a short story he's writing. While the title reveals that the fight was lost before it began, the reader, as witness to the construction, gets a front-row seat to the struggle.
The narrator frets over the message he may or may not be sending by including the name of a multinational corporation whose role in the lives of most Americans is already too pervasive. "I walked—I mclive in Brooklyn, I mchave no car—to McDonald's."
It's not the free advertising or the food products crudding up our arteries that's problematic for the protagonist; it's the realization that a world without McDonald's is a world we wouldn't recognize. Branding has become a part of the furniture of setting. "[Writers will] insert a brand into their story because brands have been inserted into their lives."
"Sent" is the last story, and it's the collection's longest and deserves more consideration than I can give it here. Its narrative components include a family crib passed down many generations, the squalor of Soviet-style block apartments, a roving mobile pornography studio and a young American's obsessive search for an amateur actress who appeared in an Eastern European porn video.
"Sent" begins as an epic folktale, wanders into participatory reportage and concludes as a failed quest. To tell you the truth, I'm not entirely convinced that it isn't a glorious send-up of Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated.
Throughout the latter half of the story, the protagonist, who might be the same man we meet in "Mc- Donald's," sends messages to his parents via email. These messages are always subterfuges of a sort, expansions of the fiction that is his motivation for traveling abroad, but curtailed in a way so as not to create confusion or worry. In other words: lies that fool no one.
Perhaps Cohen set his protagonist adrift in this Baltic purgatory, not to ask us to imagine it, but to shame us for the first-world priorities—embracing technology we don't understand, putting our trust in corporations and obsessing about things that serve no purpose—that consume us so completely that we don't have to imagine what life might be like on the other side of the world if we don't want to, and 999 times out of 1,000, we don't want to.
But in this strange place where the past has a choke-hold on the present, the protagonist finds his voice. Is Cohen's message a rejection of consumer-driven capitalism?
No. I think embedded in all this miscommunication is a deep-seated frustration with the way we talk to each other, the way we tell our stories.
Contemporary American realism isn't a mirror; it's advertising for an outdated value system. We've moved on, advanced, evolved, etc., but technology continues to make it easy to communicate—as long as we keep it short and snappy. Ergo, the primacy of language that is efficient and economical, i.e. the language of advertising.
Four New Messages suggests there is progress to be made, but we are holding ourselves back. We can explore new ways of sharing our experiences in the world and risk looking foolish, or we can shrug our shoulders and say, "It's the world we mclive in."