Thursday, April 19, 2018

Marvin Cohen, How to Outthink a Wall: An Anthology (2016)

I just finished this book, but actually, I'd been reading it on and off since early fall--not because it wasn't engaging me, but because it's an excellent book to dip in and out of, so I was reading it in bits and pieces between other things. LET IT BE SO NOTED.

Cohen (1931- ) really does seem like the ultimate cult author. Between 1967 and 1982, he published, with small presses, a whole bunch of playfully experimental short stories, two novels, and a nonfiction book about baseball, and he also wrote a lot of stuff that went unpublished, but then--due to some mixture of waning inspiration and the increasing difficulties of the industry, he stopped publishing, all his stuff went out of print, and he lost whatever name recognition he might've had. "I've risen from a lower class background to a lower class foreground," is something he said about himself, which you must admit is a pretty good line.

But for whatever reason, in the last few years, he's seen a resurgence in popularity (relatively speaking, of course). All of his books were reprinted by current small presses in 2016 and 2017, and we're currently even seeing the publication of some of his previously unpublished work: last month saw the release of Five Fictions, and in June, it'll be two novels from the seventies and a collection of poetry. What a world! Also, for the record, Cohen's still around, providing short introductions to these reprints and apparently being an active, amateur-softball-playing octogenarian. Nice.

The current book under consideration, which reprints all his published short fiction, is clearly the key text here. It includes the collections The Monday Rhetoric of the Love Club and Other Parables (1973), Fables at Life's Expense (1975), The Inconvenience of Living (1977), How the Snake Emerged from the Bamboo Pole but Man Emerged from Both (1978), and Aesthetics in Life and Art (1982), as well as twenty-five pages of previously unpublished material known only as "recent work." How recent? It is a mystery.

If you're groping around looking for someone to compare Cohen to, you're almost certainly going to hit on Donald Barthelme: oddball postmodernists, known mainly for short fiction, writing more or less contemporaneously? It's hard to avoid. They're pretty significantly different, though. I'd say that, in general, Don B was more concerned with bricolage; with physical stuff. Cohen tends to be more philosophical, albeit in a jokey way with lots of intentionally dopey wordplay. Who's better? Who's counting? I find it very difficult to really describe Cohen's style, so a few examples are in order. He has two main modes of writing: normal first- or third-person narratives, and dialogues between unnamed speakers. Herewith an example of each from Monday Rhetoric:

There's an exclusive detective who only takes on cases that have already been solved. I admire his ingenuity.

Yes, but his job is a lazy sinecure. Does it require any skill?

No, only audacity.

And it's devoid of thrills, isn't it?

Yes. There's not much suspense in it.


know a detective who's so exclusive he only handles case that don't even have a problem to be solved. 

Then why are they called 'cases?'


Who was feeding Surrealism while all the poets were taking the afternoon off to watch the conclusive championship game on millions of identical television sets? I was one of them, I was watching too, when in alarm, and a deadening pang, I realized that surrealism was being left unattended, and was missing the many warm meals it required just to stay alive on one Sunday afternoon! I panicked. Should Surrealism die of this mass criminal neglect, all the poets would have to fall back to imitating Alfred Lord Tennyson, which would be a blow against the future and an unexpected square meal to all the ghosts of reaction.

This stuff is really a lot of fun. It's a little uneven (Aesthetics in Life and Art in particular is a bit of an anticlimax), but mostly it's delightful. And great to read out loud, too: I was going on a mini-roadtrip with some friends, and I'd left the book lying on the back seat; one of them--having no prior experience with Cohen--picked it up and read us some random excerpts out of it, and it came home to me how well it works in that format. It's great to have all this stuff together like this, and it's also great that there's so much other Cohen material to explore.


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