Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Ric Williams, Fri., Aug. 3, 2001
by Richard Cohen
Pleasure Boat Studio, 240pp., $16 (paper)
With a clinically hip title like Pronoun Music, I expected Richard Cohen's collection of family-oriented stories to be the Bronx-born, Austin-residing author's tip-of-the-dark-bowler to the existentialism of Martin Buber's I and Thou (1923). Since the concept of subject-object relations recently renewed its ka-chingability in our collective cultural bank, it makes perfect sense that a writer of Cohen's temperament would chime in. And, lord knows, the more we are made aware of our objectification of each other, the better we can tolerate living in our own fractured and bankrupt psyches. For certainly the intervening years have shown that Buber's I and Thou tug-of-war of the outside society oscillates Moebius strip-like with the archetypal tribal wrangling inside the ol' noggin. Too often in that vertiginous oscillation, individuals and societies crack under the pressure.
Can you feel the pressure? Cohen certainly can. In spades. Grave-digging spades. Now, none of his characters literally dig their own graves; Cohen's more subtle than that. Much more subtle. The souls of these characters are about one, maybe two photons away from the cutting of that fabled thread of ephemeral light that keeps them shackled to their degrading earthly form. These folks checked out years ago. Maybe even lifetimes ago. Disappointment stamped their genomic passports back when DNA was just D.
The first story almost won me over. "Theme From a Summer Place" is probably closer to what the circa-1960 summer camp in Dirty Dancing was really like. Some awkward girl gets felt up by a selfish, callous, dry-humping Young Republican who turns out to be just the kind of creep we have in the White House today. Cohen paints the clearest, quickest character study of the hypocritical, selfish Republican heart-set I've ever read. Stunned by the young asshole's post-ejaculatory dismissal, the girl wanders off into the dark dreaming of abduction by a UFO. And, hey, who could blame her? Assholes are everywhere. Everywhere.
From earlier readings of Cohen's work, I expected intelligently dry, sorrowful renderings of folks burdened with unduly proximate beings who call themselves humans but default to little more than pitiful, selfish, and incompetent ciphers of protoplasmic waste when dashed against the Gibraltar of the authorial brow. Oh, the wringing of their nothingness lives, stripped of all possibility of joy in the idealism of adolescent nihilism. Hey, I know that story and Cohen does it well. Intellectual men in their 40s do adolescent nihilism like nobody else, save real adolescents.
Yep, I thought I was getting Buber and what I got was Seinfeld.
Well, not a funny Seinfeld. Humor isn't Cohen's purpose. His intent is a stately reserve pacing just this side of poignancy. But for me, it's a Seinfeld nonetheless. A Seinfeld as done by a resigned Arthur Miller on Percodan. A world of Costanza disappointment, of a tortured dynamic where nothing happens, at least nothing good, except for the assholes. Cruel comedy. Beautiful loser comedy or just okay-looking loser comedy or just plain Jane and John Doe-looking loser comedy. Everyone displaced and disjointed, but that's the way it is these days, Jer. We are exactly where we are supposed to be. This is the nadir of civilization. What else would you expect from our artists? Schtick?
And it goes something like this:
Jerry: What kind of lives are these?
George: We're not men. We're boys.
Jerry: We're pathetic.
George: Like I don't know I'm pathetic.