Joshua Cohen: “The College Borough”

06/21/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in Harper’s Magazine, July 2012.

I don’t know how it ever became an insult to call someone “too smart,” but in Cohen’s case, I can see how it applies: this critique of literature — “We’re the first nothing generation, we’ve got nothing to write about and no one to read it, everyone too busy getting technologized, too harried with degrees” — in which a visiting professor, Maury Greener, demonstrates exactly how practical and lifelike (or useless) literature is . . . by having his writing workshop spend two semesters building a replica of his hometown Flatiron building, in the incongruous middle of a prairie.

Rog, whose fiction is imprecise, is tasked with running the foundry, for he needed “dense hard verbs, relentlessly accurate adjectives, and the active immediacy of the present tense.” To fix Moreton’s issues with being a “sound guy, a line freak, just making weak beams of pretty and pretty shocking words,” the professor puts him in charge of the concrete foundation; “Sora, who’d overwrite and overcharacterize and overdetermine and overexplain” becomes the glazier, thereby learning to apply a more delicate touch; Bau’s scatalogical poetry meshes with plumbing; Lo’s schematic, carefully plotted folktales, qualify him for rigging an electrical grid. Our narrator, meanwhile, becomes the roofer (“Pat, you need to calm yourself, keep the passions controlled”), and the woman who will become his wife, Dem, takes on interior design as a counter for her “surface gaiety, superficially stunning in their detail but emotionally empty.” Is this not a brilliant twist of fiction, this critique of various writing styles, this welding of creative thought to practical execution?

But is it not also too smart, too assertive of its own tricks and devices to actually have the emotion that it requires? After years of roofing — and mind you, all of his classmates have gone into these more physical professions — has our narrator lost the ability to communicate the fire that he once felt at the thought of Greener attempting to kiss Dem? All this, incidentally, is a reflection, sandwiched into Pat’s present day, in which he and Dem take their daughter, Veri, on a tour of NYU, all while attempting to avoid seeing the actual Flatiron. (It’s unclear and misleading when, given his own job, he calls Veri’s decision to pursue a “profane concatenation of finance and psychology–she wanted to be employable” a rebellion against his own rebellion.) This also serves as a critique of the city, itself — and again, there’s a sense of overachieving, particularly in some of the linguistic choices (“an expert at translating anacreontics” or “delirious through the night he apostrophizes squirting skunks”) — for Greener’s literary depression is what first infects the class, bringing the separation between “downtown, which creates the art” and “midtown, which rapaciously profits from it” to a small town that, until then, had never even met a Jew before.

Ultimately, though savvier readers will guess this sooner, Greener jumps from the top of the Fauxiron: this is the real reason Pat doesn’t want to see the original, and perhaps this, too, has something to do with his decision to stay away from literature — that lesson, that cautionary tale, has been drilled deeply into his head, with labor, sweat, tears, and now blood. But for all these fabulist critiques, the story doesn’t quite stick: Pat may have learned a lesson, but we as readers haven’t, thrice-removed as we are. And this is when being too smart becomes the insult, when the brain races ahead and all but blockades the heart. “The College Borough” feels like a combination both of Borges and Lethem, so yes, it’s delightfully inventive, but no, the metaphors feel incomplete. Or maybe I’m just having an adverse reaction to the message that is implicit (and contradictory): that writing is pointless and impractical . . . even though it’s being conveyed via writing itself. (We’re well-versed in paradox, no? “This sentence is false.”) Perhaps when I critique the lack of emotion, I’m simply incensed by the beats between Cohen’s specific notes, confused by the somewhat unexplained pivot between art as life and life as everything else.

In that being puzzled and thrown off-guard isn’t necessarily a bad thing, “too smart” is a fairly tame insult to Cohen — the story’s worth checking out, and will surely have more significance/resonance with another reader.

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