The Novel is Headed to Boca: An Interview with Joshua Cohen

"A Gym Window" - Catherine Elizabeth

"A Gym Window" - Catherine Elizabeth

Issue #1 of Assignment features a new short story by Joshua Cohen, “The Gymnics.” Cohen is the author of several books, including the short story collection Four New Messages, which was named one of the Best Books of 2012 by The New Yorker, and the forthcoming novel Book of Numbers, which will be available this June from Random House. He is a New Books critic for Harper’s. In this interview, he talks about the literature that influenced “The Gymnics,” as well as some of the research methods he employed for his new novel.

To read an excerpt from "The Gymnics" click here.

- Daniel Johnson

What does the title, “The Gymnics,” refer to?

Joshua Cohen: Style-and-themewise I was thinking of the Stoics, of course - of Aurelius’ Meditations, Epictetus’ Discourses. But the title comes from poetry, from Virgil in translation: The Georgics, The Eclogues (also called The Bucolics).

Are there any particular Aurelius maxims you like?

JC: The ones I like best I altered, or adapted, for use. Here’s one, though, that didn’t make the cut: “Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.”

"The Gymnics" is a story about a student who valorizes a writer and educator before acknowledging his humanity. Has this ever happened to you with an author or educator you've admired?

JC: Dickens's affair with Ellen Ternan broke my heart.

What are your thoughts on a reader separating a body of work or art from the body who created it?

JC: I cleave to the New Criticism, which isn't new anymore: author and authored are separate. "Phallacies" grow big and hard between them...

Did you research Silicon Valley for your new novel, Book of Numbers? If so, what were your research methods?

JC: I read, taught myself to code a bit. Lied to people who worked in tech, took them to dinner, went to their parties, and just generally haunted their lives.

A character in David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel The Pale King says that “dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention,” and that the increasingly LED-screened world exploits this notion: “I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.” Given that the Internet is the primary marketplace in the global information society today, what do you, way down, think it’s about?

JC: $$$$. And succedanea for same.

Where do you think the novel, as an art form, is headed?

JC: To Boca.

What are you currently reading?

JC: Jeff Nunokawa’s Note Book. Yoel Hoffmann’s Moods, translated by Peter Cole.