I first came across the stories of Thomas Cotsonas as an editor of the literary magazine, Construction. The story he submitted to us was a piece called “א; Or the Story of Isaac and His Mother,” which consisted of one hundred sequentially numbered sentences that described, from the perspective of the son, Isaac, years later when he was a grown man, the grieving process that he and his mother endured after his father died. This piece, which also appears in his short story collection, Nominal Cases, is a perfect representation of Cotsonas’ work, and of many of the stories which inhabit the pages of his first book, because it is playful and funny, experimental with the numbered sentences, yet dead serious, with a mostly deadpan, straight forward, almost journalistic tone, but also with these moments that are so honest and real they make your heart hurt. I’ll be reading a Cotsonas story and having so much fun, then all of a sudden, he’ll change everything, and make me feel something I wasn’t ready for.
Winner of the 2014 St. Lawrence Book Award, there’s a lot of abandonment in Nominal Cases, and a lot of grieving too. In these stories—several of them loosely connected—there are people living for decades amidst the pain of losing their family members. There’s very often a child who’s lost their father, and as much as they try to understand what this means, if it means anything at all outside of the fact that he is no longer there, they are forced to just sit in the pain and loss.
Yet there’s also intense laughter. I am ashamed to admit this, but even after reading, editing, and publishing two of Cotsonas’ stories, I did not truly get a sense of his comedic gifts. That’s because his humor comes out of nowhere. Similar to those moments when the dead-honest, heartbreaking emotion can strike you and change everything, the comedy gets you because you just weren’t ready for it.
The comedy is particularly salient in the story “Quartet (1)”, part one of a four-part metafictional series in which Cotsonas deconstructs storytelling throughout history, ending with his place in all that. In this first part we’re with an Italian writer in 1564, who is penning a story about a servant’s conspiracy to manipulate his boss into murdering his wife because the servant is in love with her. Basically, if he can’t have her, no one can. This story, much like many others in the collection, is deeply entrenched in irony, in the absurdity of the fiction that the Italian writer is composing. Throughout, Cotsonas continues in the tradition of David Foster Wallace in using footnotes ironically and brilliantly, adding hilarious commentary, depth, and analysis to his own work.
These stories also have a deep sense of history (inaccurate history quite often, but it’s there), of existential philosophy and identity, of culture, of the peoples of the world. Borges’ penning of false histories, essays, reviews of fictitious books, are all clearly a major influence, as Cotsonas even reviews a Borges’ book that no one, including Google because I checked, has ever heard of—because is there a better way to honor the Argentinian master than by inventing a book to add to his legend?
Also in the stories of Nominal Cases is urbanization, political strategy and policy, and urban design, particularly of NYC, as seen in his collage devoted to Robert Moses called “RM: A Slideshow” and “The City’s Father,” a piece told from the perspective of a corrupt mayor who fled town.
Cotsonas also utilizes unreliable narrators impressively, à la Twain’s “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. Very often the story starts off with someone telling you they heard a story, or of a writer, or just a person, who had heard of a writer who had thought of a story once, and that that was the story they were going to tell you. There was a piece like this in one of Cotsonas’ “Quartet” series, and I was sure the writer who the narrator was telling a story about was L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wizard of Oz. But then, after reading Baum’s Wikipedia page, and I verified the details of his life, he had died at a different age than the one stated in Cotsonas’ story, so then I wasn’t sure if it was Baum or not. Cotsonas plays with this unreliability throughout—there’s very often a story within the story (with footnotes at times, giving you commentary / analysis/ the history of the story) and you don’t know what’s true or false, whether they’re lying or they don’t just remember correctly.
Cotsonas is one of the most inventive stylists I’ve read, but that’s a very minor reason for why I love his stories so much. I love them because they have what great stories by Barthelme and Borges have: so much heart and soul, and realness, those moments of truly vulnerable honesty that just tear you apart.
I remember meeting someone who had Donald Barthelme as a writing teacher. In a workshop class, the main thing the man cared about was whether or not the story broke his heart. I always thought this was so amazing, because Barthelme was one of the great American stylists and a supremely original craftsman. But he didn’t look for that. All he would ask is, “Did it break your fucking heart?”
Well that’s what Thomas Cotsonas does.
David Plick is the founder and editor of the online lit and humor magazine Down & Out, and a former Henry Roth Fiction Scholar at The City University of New York. His work has been in Fiction, ArchDaily, Fiction Advocate, Word Riot, Philadelphia Review of Books, and other places. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Guttman Community College.