This article appears in the the June 2015 Fiction Issue of VICE Magazine.
There's really no worse place to interview someone than a Russian bathhouse. The steam fucks up digital recorders as well as traditional pad and pen, some loudmouth is always bellowing in not-English, and taking photos is generally viewed with suspicion, if not malice. The banya is, however, a fine place to write a "profile," where observation reigns over accurate quotation and smirky descriptions of the salad your subject orders and the way he or she mangles the accent while ordering it suffice as insight. It is also simply a pleasant time.
I went to the Mermaid Spa in Brighton Beach with Joshua Cohen, per his suggestion (mine was to take kratom together, which he politely dismissed as "too corny") to have just such a time. Cohen is one of those never-not-working writeaholics who do the long-as-all-hell book reviews in Harper's, the London Review of Books, and the like. He's currently promoting his fourth novel, second-drafting his fifth, and sitting on some five books of collected short stories and nonfiction as well as an always growing pile of new work to collect. And he's 34. To top off the intimidation, these aren't alty little chapbooks or novellas but thick, crushing tomes of dense, excessively researched prose.
The most recent one is called Book of Numbers and at its most basic is a corporate history of a surrogate Google called Tetration.com as told between the company's founding programmer, named Joshua Cohen, and a washed-up Brooklyn novelist hired as his ghostwriter, also named Joshua Cohen. I agree that sounds cute, and the first part of the book does such an effective pantomime of a milquetoast Brooklyn novelist, I was fully prepared to accept it as the real Joshua Cohen's real Brooklyn-noveling voice until a wayward sentence bricked me upside the head like Reginald Denny.
"I think one of the best lines in the book is, 'How big a nigger cock can Natalie Portman fit in her little Jew hole?'" Josh said shortly after hello, selling me on him for the second time.
"You notice that Principal [fake novelist Josh's term in the book for fake Google Josh] never uses any contractions or possessives when he speaks, and that he always refers to himself in the first person plural?"
Yes, I did, I responded. Very clever tics for an off sort of Silicon Valley guy.
"Did you also notice that each section of the book had an even number of paragraphs and that every paragraph had an even number of sentences in it?"
Oh, shit, I did not.
"On top of that, every sentence has a number of syllables metered to work out to fulfill certain metric principles. Most of them are even, but then the sentences I wanted to rhythmically stick out I arranged so that they're odd, but then the odd-number sentences within the paragraph all balance out and add up to an even number. It's all very even-number-based, base four since Tetration, of course, means square. I wanted a structuring device for Principal's speech to insure that it has this autistic sort of regularity, almost like an algorithm, but it's also done in tribute to the Chandah·s´a¯stra, the ancient Sanskrit book of prosody that's the earliest known form of binary notation. And the first person plural, of course, is how the Hindu gods refer to themselves in epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata."
As a high-pitched whirr slowly replaced the thoughts in my head, I came to terms with the fact that I now had to get naked with this cracked James Joyce computerman.
Before our schvitz, we'd stopped by Josh's Red Hook apartment to grab bathing suits for both of us. Though he referred to it several times as a bunker, it was one of the more unbunkerly basements I've ever been in. Lotta light, windows at both ends, long and tall enough to have some five or six ceiling-high bookshelves and additional free stacks without looking like a lunatic's garret. "You have to see it when I pull the middle doors shut and get all the light out of here. Then you can really get cooking."
The shelves next to Josh's work desk have four books turned out and leaned against the spines of the rest, bookstore-display-style: The Orators by W. H. Auden and Black Swan by Thomas Mann sandwiching a pair of 60s-era sci-fi paperbacks.
"The new stuff I'm working on draws from these. I'm trying to base some of the language on Auden's 'Journal of an Airman,' the sort of clipped, jargony speech he uses, while the story is more in line with Black Swan, which features one of the best uses of an animal in literature."
"Oh, yeah," I said as if I'd read it.
Josh rustled up his trunks and a pair of thin, red bootleg Umbros for me. Then we made our way back out into the hall, past a pile of shoes so big and mostly dressy it looked like spillover from a Holocaust museum.
"These are all from family members. Whenever a guy dies I get the shoes."
The joke I wish I'd made at this point was a pun on shoes and the Shoah, but instead I asked him whether he'd seen Adam Sandler's movie The Cobbler. Worse, he hadn't. :(
While the Russian & Turkish Baths on Tenth Street in the East Village is where Belushi went to sweat out his SNL after-parties and where Jonathan Ames goes to hang that stupid fucking hat, the Mermaid Spa is where actual Russians go. Not a ton on a Wednesday night, but enough to fill out the dining area and really get the decibels going at key points in the evening's Rangers game. It's also situated right by the entrance to Sea Gate, which, Josh pointed out, not only is the city's only gated community but also contains one of the city's only trailer parks. While most gated communities tend to downplay their gatedness out of decorum, Sea Gate's entrance is a furnace mouth of black iron bars and full-height turnstiles.
"There was some looting during Sandy, so now the NYPD has these permanent checkpoints and the whole place on lockdown."
After ziplocking our cell phones with the Mermaid's cashier lady, Josh and I changed into our blousy trunks and opted for mutual blindness instead of having to defog our glasses every five seconds. Divested of his iron-rim Lennon specs and all the rest, Joshua looked less the harried Soviet dissident of his Wikipedia page and more like a sandy-haired Matthew Broderick. I avoided pointing this out for fear of it being read as a come-on, or even just a shitty reference. I'd been batting pretty low by this point.
We steamed, then sauna'd, then dunked ourselves in those horrible ice baths that make your entire skin contract. After a second round we decamped to the cafeteria tables in the middle of the banya, and Josh ordered us some juice and sliced grapefruit using just enough Russian to tell the waitress he didn't speak Russian and me that he probably spoke really good Russian. Josh lived in Brighton Beach for five years before moving to Red Hook and had given me an extremely informative tour of the neighborhood on our drive in: the Kazakh nightclubs, the Amberjack V party boat, the warehouse-size brothel with PUSSSEY? spray-painted on its otherwise clean walls.
"The only time I ever bought coke off of Russians, it was here," he'd told me as we pulled up to a darkened side street lined with menacing clapboard terror-cabins. "The Coast Guard built these as barracks back in the forties. Hands down the scariest place I've ever been in New York."
Once our grapefruit arrived I pointed out that it contains a chemical that enhances the effects of kratom, just to put that out there. He again declined.
While we took a mid-fruit smoke break on the banya's smoking porch (Russians), it occurred to me that Joshua was one of the only authors I'd met who didn't consciously write like he spoke or, as observed, speak like he wrote. Which was a relief, since his written diction is an esteem-blasting babel of 99-cent words like catholicon, eloign, and unmullioned, even when he's not combing ancient Vedic prosody manuals to program his characters' speech.
"I really want to develop a stable rhetoric, though, so I can work on multiple books at the same time. You don't get that anymore—everybody's terrified about being seen as pretentious. But, like, Faulkner had that great biblical tone when he wasn't writing in a character's voice."
After another round of steams, we headed for the showers. "I always have this fantasy when I get back to the locker that I'm going to open it and all my clothes will be replaced by better versions. Like the nice shirt I should have bought instead of this one."
As we left the Mermaid and approached the car, both our eyes trained on a lit window just over the Sea Gate fence, perfectly framing two ladies in profile over a steaming stovetop.
"Look at that," Josh said. "A busty woman stirring—no, two busty women stirring a pot. It's like a Vermeer."
I faked a cough to stifle my second hubba.
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