Breathless in St. Petersburg
BY JAMES E. MCWILLIAMS
Lying Together: My Russian Affair Jennifer Beth Cohen University of Wisconsin Press 211 pages, $22.95 t demands either ignorance or arrogance to think that anyone really cares about a well-bred, well-educated, well-heeled, and well-packaged white woman whose mundane romantic life takes a turn for the worse. It demands even more ignorance or arrogance to think that anyone would care about this woman’s vapid relationship with a recovering alcoholic (who drinks furtively) and chronic liar whom she fell in love with online and pursued in Kiev under the false pretence of journalistic fame (he claimed to possess a receipt proving that then Secretary of State Strobe Talbott bedded a Russian prostitute). Given the raw manner in which Jennifer Beth Cohen, at the time a tabloid journalist, wrote her lovelorn declension narrative—one that sinks squarely into that unappreciated genre known as “honky trouble” literature (think The Virgin Suicides and The Ice Storm)—the culprit is clearly ignorance. Which is sort of a relief. If Cohen were writing a sex manual, a guide to eating disorders, or a self-help book—themes all peripheral to this memoir in which nothing is really central—there’d be hell to pay, or at least lawsuits to settle. Her perspective on these themes is misinformed at best, and, more likely, clinically dysfunctional. But Cohen writes bluntly about a busted relationship, so she’s off the hook as an expert on these other, more marketable, matters. It’s a busted relationship, moreover, that hadn’t a chance in hell. It’s also a busted relationship that she honestly believed would work. Even overlooking the quandary that her newfound lover boy, Kevin, still had his old girlfriend’s name tattooed on his arm and never had that Talbott receipt, that’s a sad, even pathetic, thing for Cohen to believe. It is, however, good news for us. Indeed, Cohen’s daffy assumption makes the book tick. If she dropped hints that she should have seen the obvious emotional implosion coming, that she should have kicked herself for being so emotionally naïve, so quick to rationalize the obvious warning signs, I missed it. And so the benefit of Cohen’s failure to anticipate the inevitable blindside—one that she documents in often shameless detail—is that I was able to read her memoir and periodically howl things like “Jesus Christ! How could you be so damn stupid!!” or “You did WHAT with your fiancé on the bus going to rehab!!?”(more on this incident soon). These are not refined literary responses. But hey, they’re fun. Of course, there’s always the chance that I’m the one being duped. Cohen’s innocence could be artfully feigned. Perhaps she is so gifted a writer, so in command of her narrative point of view, that her innocence is coy, working as a brilliant literary conceit finely calibrated to evoke the bitchy outbursts more appropriate for “The Jerry Springer Show” than a chick-lit memoir. The problem with this remote possibility, however, is that Cohen’s prose is simply too coarse to have ever mastered such a conceit. Burdened with a story that only a coup of brilliant writing could salvage, Cohen overwrites, relying on several props to stabilize her wobbly material. Here we have a story, after all, where two young professionals a few years out of Boston University fall in love cyberspacially, meet physically, screw mightily, grow bored predictably, fight passive-aggressively, and break up in a manner so trite no adverb could do it justice. So, you see, not much in the way of originality (aside from the sequence where Kevin tries to kill Cohen, but even that’s kind of dull). To compensate, Cohen makes her prose feel like it has just run the 50-yard dash. “I inhale deeply, and so does he.” “After a long, exaggerated inhalation, he simply shakes his head no.” “As he inhales, I exhale.” “I have to catch the midnight train back to St. Pete,” he tells me, breathless. “I gather steam as we barrel breathlessly …” “Breathless, I tell him about the attack…” “Take a deep breath, Jen. You don’t know him.” “Fingers intertwined, breath heavy, we move together until…” Whew. The tabloid-ish nature of Cohen’s chatty memoir leads her to refer awkwardly to, of all things, poetry. Describing St. Petersburg, she writes, “Everywhere you turn there are touches of evil decorated with hints of poetry. A lot of poetry.” Before the couple descends back to earth, Kevin says, “Hey‚ … in that tone that speaks poetry.” Back on earth, “Expletives lace his diction like metaphors in a poem.” Later, in a moment of hope after the fall, Kevin says “hey” again. This time, though, it’s “like an artist worn from work… like a secret code, a pact, or”—lo and behold!—“a poem.” Cohen further struggles to imbue her flighty story with gravitas by larding her prose with writerly descriptions and MFA-patented metaphors. More often than not, they fall with a thud. A particularly tense moment is “drawn through a molasses-saturated version of time.” An apartment is not a well-lighted place but rather a venue where “two cavernous rooms absorbed heated blankets of sun.” On a rainy evening in Helsinki puddles don’t just form, they “litter the ground.” When Cohen finds Kevin’s pornographic e-mail to his ex-wife, she wants to “release the stonehard tears stuck in my throat, in my stomach.” Cohen doesn’t just smell the cigarette smoke on Kevin, she “can feel the nicotine emanating from his skin.” That’s right, she felt it, right about the time when I started to go numb. t this moment in time, the world is a terribly bleak place. Iraq, Sudan, the arc of destruction in the Indian Ocean, Condoleezza Rice’s confirmation, pervasive Republican gloating, Donald Rumsfeld’s astonishing job security, Tom DeLay, Texas, Texas, Texas… all of these grim themes legitimately beg the question: Why lend journalistic air time to the soap opera that is Jennifer and Kevin? Well, truth be told, Cohen’s brother-in-law, who is a good friend, gave me her book hoping that I’d lend it some ink. He did so with a look that said, “Hey man, if you bang it up I’d understand,” adding that “her own mom couldn’t read it.” Then The New York Times gave it a half-page review, not a bad one, and so I looked inside. I quickly started to write lots of snarky remarks in the margins (“oh god,”; “boo-hoo”; “baaaaad”) and generally found the book to be just a bit too indulgent, a tad special, and a perfect title for the Times’ newly puffed-up book section, a venue that’s currently trying too hard to be hip and cutting-edge rather than its old and stodgy literary self. Funny thing was, though, damn, I kept rushing back to it—actually doing so once while stuck in traffic on I-35—to find out what kind of ridiculous move Cohen would next make. I was, in spite of myself, in spite of the shaky writing, consumed. I was a well-bred, well-educated, well-heeled, and well-packaged honky reduced to being intrigued by the boring troubles of another honky. Which, I suppose, is precisely what the acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press (of all places) had in mind as a way to support all those stuffy books that sell about 300 copies apiece because they lack descriptions of a sexual act on the bus to rehab. Whatever literary value Cohen’s episode fails to achieve is really beside the point. In a weird way, in fact, the amateurish writing enhances the story, intensifying Cohen’s tender vulnerability. The paradox is that this book went against my instincts but, somehow, piqued them enough to barrel me through the woe-is-me breakup. Could it be that humans are more interested in the mundane lives of mundane people who have a fair amount of mundane baggage in common with them? If so, Cohen milks that sad impulse for all it’s worth. Knowingly or not, she has mastered the art of honky trouble lit. As for what she did on the bus, well, see if you can resist reading all about it. James E. McWilliams will spend the next few months repairing his friendship with the guy who suggested he review this book.