Joshua Cohen reads from the first section of his latest short story collection, Four New Messages, published in August by Graywolf Press.
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:
About two years after being graduated from college with a degree in unemployment—my thesis was on Metaphor—I’d moved from New York to Berlin to work as a writer, though perhaps that’s not right because nobody in Berlin works. I’m not going to get into why that is here. This isn’t history, isn’t an episode on the History Channel.
Take a pen, write this on a paper scrap, then when you’re near a computer, search:
Alternately, you could just keep clicking your finger on that address until this very page wears out—until you’ve wiped the ink away and accessed nothing.
However, my being a writer of fiction was itself just a fiction and because I couldn’t finish a novel and because nobody was paying me to live the blank boring novel that was my life, I was giving up.
After a year in Berlin, with my German language skills nonexistent, I was going back home. Not home but back to New York, I was going to business school. An M.B.A. It was time to grow up because life is short and even brevity costs. My uncle told me that, and it was his being diagnosed with a boutique sarcoma that—forget it.
Yesterday by close of business was the first time my portfolio ever reached seven figures, so if every author needs an occasion, let this be mine. Sitting in an office when I should be out celebrating my first million—instead remembering these events of five years ago to my keyboard, my screen.
But as I’ve said this is not about me—no one wants to hear how I’m currently leveraged or about my investments in the privatization of hospitals in China.
I met Mono—I’ll always think of him as Mono—only once, a week before I left Neukölln forever. Left the leafy lindens and sluggish Spree, the breakfasts of sausages and cheeses and breads that stretched like communist boulevards into late afternoon, the stretch denim legs of the artist girls pedaling home from their studios on paintspattered single speeds, the syrupy strong coffees the Kurdish diaspora made by midnight at my corner café and its resident narcoleptic who’d roll tomorrow’s cigarettes for me, ten smokes for two euros.
I was at a Biergarten, outside on its patio overlooking the water. The patio was abundant with greens: softly flowing ferns, flowers in pails, miniature trees packed into buckets to cut down on the breeze from the brackish canal. It was summer, still the evenings sometimes blew cool. Not this one. This evening was stifling. A few punks, scuzzy but happy, sat mohawked, barechested, feeding decomposing mice to their domesticated ermine. I was about to follow suit, had my shirt halfway up my beergut when he sat down—just when the sun was coming down.
Prose descriptions are safer than photographs (pics) and movies (vids). No one would ever identify the hero of a novel, if he’d come to life, solely by his author’s description. Let’s face it: Raskolnikov—“his face was pale and distorted, and a bitter, wrathful, and malignant smile was on his lips”—is not being stopped on the street.
Across from me Mono sat reading that novel, in English of course. And English led to English—he asked what beer was I drinking, an Erdinger Dunkel, and ordered the same.
To make conversation I said, Too bad we’re being served by the Russian. The Turk—turning my eye to the eye of her hairy navel—is way hotter.
This is not to my credit. To his he just smiled.
It was a tight smile, lips chewing teeth, as if he wasn’t sure how fresh his breath was.
I don’t know why Mono made such an impression on my premillionaire self—maybe because when you’re young and life’s a mess, the world is too: young and messy. It could also have been the beer, hopped on malt, its own head turning my head to foam.
I was in my mid 20s, actually in that latter portion of my 20s, spiraling, like how a jetliner crashes, toward 30.
But Mono was young.
He had his decade in front of him.
We covered 30: scary, scary.
Also we discovered we were both from Jersey—me from south, he from central, but still.
It was important to deliver this offhand. All expats worry about coming off spoiled or ludicrous, insane.
Why I came here was to write a book, I offered, which isn’t working out.
He brought his mouth to his beer, not the other way around. The beard was still growing in.
He swallowed, said, Achtung, and as the sun disappeared told me this story.
Excerpted from Four New Messages by Joshua Cohen. Copyright © 2012 by Joshua Cohen. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.