Four New Messages
The College Borough
“The College Borough” is from Joshua Cohen’s collection, Four New Messages (Graywolf Press). Cohen is the author of three previous collections, several novels, including Witz, and numerous essays. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Harpers, Bomb, and elsewhere.
Cohen’s wordplay and metafictional devices have led reviewers to compare him to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. The New York Observer said this of Cohen’s new work: The issues Mr. Cohen’s fiction raises – the falseness of descriptive language, the silliness of character names and other bland necessities in fiction – focus less on narrative and more on the places where life is actually happening, what Martin Amis described as the moments spent peeling stickers from car windows. Mr. Cohen is ambitious. He is mapping terra incognita. But he is at his best when he puts aside the writer’s discursive thoughts and lets his characters simply be characters.
“The College Borough,” the third story in the new collection, addresses the problems of writing itself. It focuses on a writing class taught by a one-hit wonder who abandons workshop conventions in favor of an odd project: building a replica of the FlatironBuilding. Each student’s weaknesses are addressed by his given job. The scatological poet is put in charge of plumbing, etc.
Cohen said this about the story: Reconstructing the origins of fiction, normally a risky enterprise, would seem a natural fit for “The College Borough,” a fiction about reconstruction. I wanted to write something about a Middle American university that had both every relationship and no relationship to the Middle American university I taught at in Fall 2011 – both as an exercise for myself, and as a lesson to my students.
I wanted to conceal myself as best I could in the character of “Writer in Residence,” “Professor” Maury Greener, while exposing my students to all manner of doubt and anxiety regarding the use and misuse of auto/biography in fiction. Come find yourselves herein, was my lecture, none of you are herein. Come find own my truest/falsest self as hero – an assembler, but something of a dissembler too. We never built a replica of the Flatiron Building. That much is, as a fellow faculty member noted on my exit evaluation, “voracious.”