One Talk: Meeting Up With Writer Jon Cotner

by Robert Hirschfield Jul 23, 2010
Robert Hirschfield talks to Jon Cotner, coauthor of the revolutionary narrative nonfiction book Ten Walks/Two Talks.

Our meeting at McNally Jackson began with a Ten Walks moment.

Green chairs shrieked across the bookstore floor. The store was preparing to receive guests for a literary event, and we were intruding. Me with my tape recorder, Jon Cotner with his quiet apology that was heartfelt, not perfunctory, marking him as an outsider among the tactical barbarians of New York.

Ten Walks/Two Talks was launched at McNally Jackson earlier this year. I am a New York walker, and this is a book, largely, about walking in New York, seeing its limitless fragments collapse, careen, spill over, flower with amazing women like this one:

A Japanese woman wore a bowler hat. The question was she attractive? made no sense. I was attracted to her. She needed my gaze and I delivered it.

No one else writes like this about New York. I told Cotner to email my homage to his co-author and friend, Andy Fitch, in Shanghai, who authored the Ten Walks. The Two Talks were another matter. A staccato terrain of riffs about place, memory, philosophy (or put another way, the twenty-first century love poems of two friends in the form of conversation), the sudden leaps and disjointed breaks, the sentences that go nowhere, leave the reader in mid-air, cut off, lost.

“Perhaps the talks seem a bit digressive,” Jon conceded, “but that’s something we want to preserve. We culled two talks from the original series of thirty talks. Maybe you would have a more complete experience of the talks if you listened to all thirty of them.”

The thing about Jon Cotner is that he doesn’t look crazy. He looks like Frodo in the film version of The Lord of The Rings. He is also as earnest as Frodo.

Anyone who tells me to read thirty of his talks after I have struggled through just two is someone I immediately fall in love with. I am a sucker for a certain kind of innocent single-mindedness, or earnestness. If Cotner were a woman, I would ask for her phone number right then and there.

“Look,” I said, “let me give you an example of what I mean. The two of you are walking in Central Park. The dialogue goes like this:

A: Here we stand atop Belvedere Castle. How thrilling to reach the edge.

J: It is.

A: Again so many scenes in this park correspond to Hiroshige’s Hundred Famous Views of Edo. At some point I hope, if no one has, to rediscover those the Edo sites. Most got paved. Pedestrians ought to…

J: During Japan’s rise…

A: Or one became a nasty canal…

J: Really?

“OK, the reader here is not told by Andy which scenes correspond to Hiroshige’s work,” I said. “In fact, he is not told anything about how the two are related at all. There is no context and no continuity.”

“That’s part of the dialogue. So many issues come up, but before long the momentum shifts us to something else. We don’t want to create a sense of closure, but a series of openings.”

The openings in Two Talks compel readers to let themselves in with their own keys. The authors will not hand out any navigational fixed points.

“Wittgenstein once tried lecturing from notes, and said his mouth was filled with corpses, and he would never do it again.”

I laughed, but Cotner was being not funny. It’s just that he seemed too genteel to traffic in such morbidity.

“Do you think these talks, as some people say, have an encyclopedic quality?” he asked me.

“Not at all.” I couldn’t be sure if that worried him or not. “You guys never stay with any one thing long enough.”

Cotner agreed. “Things move quickly, as someone put it, between Chinese poetry and dodging traffic.”

“Well put.”

“I am reminded of Emerson’s quote: ‘The art of life is skating on the surfaces.’ That was one of our editorial principles. We wanted to create this verbal surface along which people could glide.”

Along the bookstore surface, the shrieking had stopped, replaced by the fidgety whispers of people settling in. Cocooned in his intensity, Cotner did not seem to notice. I felt I was sitting with this agreeable, vulnerable zealot bent on bringing a whole new aesthetic into the world of writing.

“Can I suggest one thing, that we look at the walks as an investigation of city streets and parks, and the talks primarily as an investigation of friendship and fleeting thoughts?”

I don’t know at what point the adversarial attitude I entered McNally’s with dissolved. It was not as if I succumbed to an intellectual meltdown or anything like that. But I was able to see that dwelling on the problematic parts of the book was keeping me from appreciating its originality. These guys were breaking down the tired walls of linear storytelling. They were radically trying to weave together an inner and outer topography, with all its raw edges exposed.

I don’t recall sharing much of this with Cotner. Maybe just a little. I didn’t want him to think I was suddenly a softie. As I told him, parts of the Two Talks do work (just not enough of them.) Here is a part that does:

A: I had my first oral sex experience in a high school parking lot, yet was not um the recipient. Um, this tea, Jon, has started to develop a mace flavor? A bold spicy flavor? Will you often find that near the bottom of the cup?

J: It…

A: I’ve sensed a wooden quality, and spicy quality, circulating not only through my tongue and mouth but all down my chest. Thanks for that.

J: Yeah, this tea seems meant, is is: the tea can make you feel kind of wild.

Dustin, McNally’s lanky events coordinator, was about to introduce the evening’s author. The two of us decided we were too exhausted to stick around.

“I appreciate your honesty,” Cotner said. “Your criticism was helpful.”

I didn’t know what to say. I am much older than Cotner, but I imagine I’d have responded less graciously.

Out on Prince Street in Soho, Cotner asked if we could walk together. A blast of people were talking to their cell phones. Cotner began discussing Montaigne, his concept of the essay as an “experiment,” or an “attempt.”

I noticed myself smiling as he was talking. Not at the incongruity of Montaigne being resurrected on a Manhattan shopping artery immune to philosophy, but at the simple pleasure of walking with a young writer determined to explore what his American culture programmed him to discard.

Community Connection

Editor’s note: please reference David Miller’s Notes on Ten Walks/Two Talks for more literary criticism / study of the text.


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