Too Loud a Solitude

ATTENTION: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction BY Joshua Cohen. Random House. Hardcover, 576 pages. $28.

The cover of ATTENTION: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction

JUSTIN TAYLOR: Let’s start at the beginning. You started working as a journalist and a critic fairly young, fresh out of undergrad, yeah?

JOSHUA COHEN: 2001, yup. Just before 9/11, aka Ten Days After The Corrections Was Published.

The true beginning of the twenty-first century. You say in your introduction to your new book Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction that you’d “always planned” on being a writer, but I get the sense that you didn’t always plan on this type of writing in particular. It was novels you had on your mind and then this just . . . happened?

I was an idiot. Still am an idiot. I believed everything I read: I believed that history was a guide to the present and future. If the novelists of the past wrote nonfiction to support the writing of their novels, then that’s what I’d do, too. It was “left-hand work.” Which soon also required my right hand. And eventually took over my life.

As it tends to do. I love talking to you, god knows, but us doing this necessarily means that there’s other work not getting done. Yours or mine. But stick with me here a second while we do your origin story. You finished college, The Corrections came out, the Towers fell, irony died, and then you left the country for Berlin. Was the feeling in Europe—and more to the point, the lived experience of the work—more like what you’d envisioned? I want to get a sense of what those years were like: where you were, how it shaped you, and why you came back.

Those years were strange and lonely. I was working as a foreign correspondent for The Forward, America’s oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper. It was a Yiddish paper that at that time published in three editions: English, Russian, and original-recipe mamaloshen. My beat was the east of Europe, Berlin and east of Berlin, and the typical Jewish stories there were: “Cemetery Desecrated!” Rather, all the stories that weren’t about cemeteries that had been desecrated were about people who were about to be put into cemeteries that were about to be desecrated: Holocaust survivors, now dying. I spent a lot of time—too much time for a kid in his early twenties—talking to the last of that generation, asking them stupid questions I regret now, like: “Happy that Communism’s over?”

I came back to the States because I was tired of the travel. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. And The Forward—or I should say my editor there, Alana Newhouse—was giving me the chance to review books. To become “a literary critic.” That’s how all of my pieces ended, with the biographical line: “Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for The Forward,” and I remember my Uncle Dan calling me every week, after reading my latest piece, and saying, “Not bad, not bad—but still they call you ‘a literary critic,’ not ‘the literary critic’? When will they promote you from ‘a’ to ‘the’? I bet they’d make you ‘the’ if you for once wrote good things about Israel in simple sentences that are easy to read.”

Thankfully, I never had the balls to take this up with Alana. I was just at the start of figuring out which of my pretensions would save me, and which would be my ruin.

It sounds so far away and quaint now: the weekly deadline, the paper made of paper. But also the phone call! Landline to landline, I can hardly imagine it. When I think of that same time period, and especially of the shift to online writing, there’s almost a kind of . . . mourning? At first it seemed so liberating—there was no limit on space, no worry about the price of ink. But then it turned out that there was a different kind of limit being established, an ever-shrinking limit, it would seem, on people’s ability or willingness to pay attention.

I was a late adopter. And adopting late often means adopting hard. Meaning, I couldn’t just use this technology, I had to understand it, I had to understand why. The America I returned to, New York in 2006 and 2007, this was my “uncanny valley.” First off, everyone had phones. I didn’t have a phone. So I got a phone, I got a computer, I got an internet connection at home. No more internet cafes. That feeling of uncanniness lasted until the crash of 2008.

Which brings us around to this book you wrote, this nonfiction book, which seems to me to continue a line of inquiry traceable through your fiction, specifically Four New Messages and then Book of Numbers. Like it or not, you have become a dogged and astute chronicler and critic of the internet and the culture of distraction it engenders. But Attention also pays attention, a journalist’s or even a muckraker’s attention, to the real world. To the depredations of post-crash politics and economics, the resurrection of irony and the death of facts.

I can’t think of any other way to write—or any other way to live, for that matter—except in opposition. It’s the basic technique of Jewish culture: Take the enemy as subject. It’s pilpul in a way.

A Talmud scholar’s revenge. All this is reminding me of something you said in your introduction to the book: “The average computer user of good faith who seeks regularly to read the news online now has to exercise the type of critical acumen that scholars of literature have always reserved for the analysis of texts: an intense engagement that seeks out secret meanings, hidden biases, hidden agendas.”

It was around 2008, I think, that I first started noticing the word attention. Everyone was saying it, and I wanted to know what it meant—what it meant when someone said, “No one’s paying any attention to,” I don’t know, “climate change” or “subprime mortgages.” Or what it meant when someone said, “I don’t read novels; I can’t pay attention.” I wanted to know the word’s origins, and why the most current verb it most conventionally took was “to pay.” This was my way of understanding what had happened to my readers. Or to the readers I’d never have. Other writers of our generation tried to get at this reckoning through writing journalism about the rise of Netflix or Amazon, or through writing scripts for Netflix or Amazon. The choice was: Either chronicle the decline of literary culture or hasten it. Of course, to choose the former was to do the latter anyway. But I’m not sure that that was so clear to me at the time.

But that hastening was going to happen with or without the chronicle, but what justifies the chronicle—if and when absolutely nothing else will—is that its true subject is always the chronicler, i.e. the person writing, i.e. you, and I wanted to talk about that by mentioning one of my favorite entries in the collection, which is also to my mind among the strangest. I’m talking about “Letterform, Islandform,” your recurring, withdrawal-fueled dream of an imaginary letter, like the alpha (or, why not, the aleph) of some impossible alphabet. You try to trace what the letter means, but you also attempt to reproduce the symbol itself. It struck me because it was so deeply personal, I mean in a different way than some of the other personal pieces, but also because I had a similar vision once.

What was yours?

Unlike you, I was not withdrawing from drugs, but rather tripping my face off. It was a sound also, an impossible sound, that I can hear when I think about it—now, for example. I tried to describe it in a short story I wrote. In fact, I may have written the entire story as the ring for the jewel (so to speak) of the description of the letter, though hopefully that isn’t how it would read to a reader. Anyway, it was a kind of burning palimpsest, a lot of Hebrew stacked on top of itself. And on fire. I have no idea what it meant.

The sound of Hebrew on fire. The vision I had was silent, but it had to do with shame.

How so? I mean, that wasn’t my reading of your essay. I thought there was something beautiful and heartening about this deeply private vision revealing itself finally as a landform, as the city of home.

It opens with this recurring dream I had of a letter that didn’t exist—a very disturbing recurring dream of a letter that, because it didn’t exist, had no name. From there, the piece veers into onomastics and toponymy—specifically, how certain islands got their names. There’s an attempt to associate islands with letters: Both are floating shapes whose names have been imposed, by so-called natives, by so-called colonizers. All of them writers, in a sense. Because what are writers, if not namers? And that’s where the shame comes in—from my own desires, in my fiction, to name and define everything and everyone except myself.

I’ve always felt shame about needing nonfiction—about needing the authority of nonfiction—in order to write about my life. Fiction feels too forgiving to force the autobiographical or “personal.” Nonfiction, by contrast, has demands. It has expectations. And it has a deadline, and—though slighter and slighter—a reward. I’m not proud that I’m only myself under these conditions. Under these strictures.

I agree with you there. The nonfiction, especially the pitch-it-then-do-it variety, has a clear structure, parameters, due date, etc. It lends coherence to a life that is lived mostly in the service of incoherence. This might be something that’s hard for anyone other than fiction writers to understand: The nonfiction is where we run to hide.

Nonfiction to fiction writers is like fiction to nonfiction writers: It’s where you go to bury the self and hide your secrets like they’re bones. And I think I’ve always regarded this shamefully. Because though everything in my nonfiction is true and fact-checked, the impulse behind it all is false. The impulse or motivation has to be obfuscated.

This is true of so many of the pieces in this book. Take “The Last Last Summer (On Donald Trump and the Fall of Atlantic City).” I wanted to write about the excitement that gamblers experience when taking a risk against the odds, a risk that will almost certainly end in disaster. I didn’t want to write about the election: I just wanted to write about this ecstatic panic that I knew from growing up around the casinos, but that I’d forgotten about until I recognized it at Trump rallies. What the candidate and his supporters said or did wasn’t nearly as interesting to me as the issue of why so many people—more people than ever?—find self-destruction thrilling.

Or take the Bernie Sanders profile [“Exit Bernie”]—it reads like a profile of the senator, but it’s really a shadow profile of my reactions to friends who post-2008 declared themselves “socialists” or “democratic socialists.” Among them were a lot of Jews who tended to understate or even denigrate their Jewishness, and I wanted to know why that was—I wanted to know why that bothered me. My editors, and maybe my readers, cared about Sanders. I myself cared about communicating certain feelings and thoughts to certain people I loved.

Such as?

Such as, their insistence on identifying “a politics” in every aspect of life was rapidly rendering them humorless and sexless.

These aren’t the objectives found in a typical pitch. So when you want to take on something like this, do you make your pitch this untypical way, or do you just get yourself assigned to write the profile and then figure out where to fit in your concerns as you go along?

I pitch toward expectations, sure. And I never deliver what I pitch. Which is why so many of these pieces were killed by the publications that originally commissioned them. This is a book of murder victims.

The book as morgue, but also as afterlife. I mean this is what we were talking about earlier, the left-handed work and how it takes over. Each piece was written out of specific necessity (you need to eat; the New Republic needs to profile Bernie), and yet here they all are, this grand gathering across place and time, cohered around this notion of attention—who pays it, what it costs.

We used to write formally and were forgotten. Now, online, we write casually, but for perpetuity. If this isn’t heaven, it’s hell repackaged.

Justin Taylor’s most recent book is the story collection Flings. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Sewanee Review, and n+1. He lives in Portland, Oregon.