In the 1980s, when Tom LeClair wrote about ‘systems novels’, it must have seemed a brief phase wholly embodied in the works of a handful of American novelists – chiefly Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon – who were raised in wartime and found themselves scrambling to figure out the new world of consumer electronics and globalised spycraft. Yet these days there appears to be no way of not writing about the systems that make up the macro data of everyday life. ‘If there is an individual alive in 2015 with the genius and vision of James Joyce,’ wrote the novelist Tom McCarthy, ‘they’re probably working for Google.’
In 2015, Joshua Cohen wasn’t working for Google, but he was, in a slanted way, writing about Google. Book of Numbers, a novel about a billionaire inventor of a search engine and his biographer (both named Joshua Cohen), had a lively intelligence to it – until the tech-god Cohen took over and began relating his life story in pedantic, weighted prose, and every turn of the page became as slow and effortful as flipping a mattress. When Cohen (the real-life author) revealed in interviews that, actually, the novel had a secret scheme – every section had an even number of paragraphs, and every paragraph an even number of sentences – he unintentionally gave it a further taint of sadness. Why go to all that effort? An explanation he gave in one interview (‘any book that’s going to be paid serious literary – academic literary – attention nowadays is going to be run through a computer’) did nothing to alleviate the feeling of wasted labour.
More harebrained still was PCKWCK, an online novel written in real time over a period of five days. The ambition was not to write a good novel – Cohen is sure it’s worthless and I’ve respected his evaluation by not reading it – but to perform the writing of a novel, to show the reality of being what Cohen calls, in his oddly old-fashioned way, a ‘culture worker’.
Moving Kings is shorter and leaner than any of Cohen’s fiction since his tight bundle of stories Four New Messages (2012), and as far as I can tell there are no author stand-ins among the cast. Smartphones and laptops are presented as functional, not transcendental devices. We’re in the realm of grunt work, mainly, and small-time aspirations.
After completing his military service in Israel, Yoav is sent by his mother to New York to work with his cousin David King, who owns a removals company called King’s Moving. Stress and misery are the hallmarks of the trade – no one likes to move house, willingly or unwillingly – but it’s also one of the few blue-collar jobs to thrive in the digitised, indebted West.
Yoav and, later, a colleague from the army called Uri are ill at ease in New York, despite the job feeling like a natural extension of their military service: clearing evictees and itemising possessions are their daily tasks. One woman threatens to throw a child out of the window if anyone enters her building. At another home there are spitting demonstrators with placards.
Part of the aesthetic of the systems novelist is either to eliminate the possibility of discrete characters or to slather the very concept with irony. But here Cohen takes his characters seriously. ‘All his struggles were in his face,’ Cohen writes of David. ‘All his personas in combat: king, commoner, selfmade, incomplete. The booze and red meat and dairy. The pills ostensibly for bloodpressure and the pills ostensibly for cholesterol and the pills he wasn’t sure what they did: for anxiety.’ That sloppy-on-purpose fall at the end of a sentence is a habit borrowed from David Foster Wallace. But it can easily turn egregious. Tinks, a fellow mover with artistic ambitions, talks of ‘this festival of documentaries he was going to, or had a documentary he’d made in competition in’.
Cohen is a poet of stasis and downtime, and he likes to develop his characters by showing us what they do when they have nothing to do. In his childhood home, David finds a cactus and dips ‘a finger into the soil – was it supposed to be this thirsty? In the bathroom, he splashed water to his mouth, returned to the bedroom and dribbled from his lips into the pot – why do this?’ Yoav, despondent in New York, finds the days ‘swelling inside him, the offdays, the Tues, the Wed, the Thurs … Days chained together and towed into sleeplessness swinging and rattling.’
There is drama towards the end but it arrives suddenly, knocking an enjoyably helter-skelter novel further off balance. Perhaps, as before, Cohen is betting that it will all be pushed through a computer program developed for 21st-century fiction, revealing a previously invisible shape or structure that satisfies some aerial sense of neatness or symmetry – but let’s hope not.