Joshua Cohen’s PCKWCK

by Laurena Tsudama, University of Connecticut

Despite the popularity of adaptations of Victorian fiction, the deliberate adaptation of not just the plot or themes of a Victorian novel but also the conditions of its production is still unusual. However, that is precisely what American novelist Joshua Cohen has done in writing PCKWCK (2015), his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1837). Written online in real-time, PCKWCK offered readers both a new (and, oftentimes, unusual) take on Dickens’ classic novel and an interactive experience that allowed them to engage directly with the material being written before their eyes.

mr-pickwick-addresses-the-clubCohen’s project adapts not just The Pickwick Papers but also Victorian serial publication, and PCKWCK is more a conceptual adaptation than a retelling of Dickens’ novel. PCKWCK amplifies the interactive experience that serialization presented to the Victorian reader by utilizing a similar structure, one in which readers receive parts of a novel to which they can then respond, and situating it within a digital culture that speeds up the process of author-reader exchange. Dickens’ practice of publishing his novels in serial parts created what The Illustrated London News describes as an “immediate personal companionship between the writer and the reader”: “It was just as if we received a letter or a visit, at regular intervals, from a kindly observant gossip” (“The Late Charles Dickens”). Although this sentimental image of the author-reader relationship is certainly relevant to PCKWCK as a kind of contextual backdrop, Sarah Winter’s argument that Dickens shaped “the reception of popular serial fiction into a means of gathering readers into a new constituency with democratic, participatory potentials” comes closer to how PCKWCK envisions serialization’s (and the internet’s) impact on reading (6).

PCKWCK retains some central features of The Pickwick Papers, such as a colorful cast of characters and a roving “club” whose adventures propel the narrative. Cohen’s novel follows the activities of the eponymous PCKWCK Club, a United States-based military contractor that specializes in the extraordinary rendition, interrogation, and torture of suspected terrorists. The novel’s first two chapters are narrated by a French taxi driver/aspiring novelist, born in the fictional country of “Tunubia,” who becomes a target of PCKWCK. Believing that he has finally found a publisher for the manuscript he has spent eight years writing, the narrator travels to another fictional country called “Maqajoshua_cohen-2010ma” only to be taken, interrogated, and brutally tortured by members of PCKWCK because his pen name has led them to believe he is the son of a known terrorist. The remaining three chapters of the short novel follow the PCKWCK Club’s members, whose identities and speech Cohen adapts from the participants in the website’s chatroom.

This chatroom, which appeared alongside the text of the novel, allowed PCKWCK’s readers to discuss the novel while Cohen was writing it. Between October 12th and 16th of 2015, for five hours each day, visitors to PCKWCK’s website could watch Cohen via webcam as he worked and read the novel as it progressed. PCKWCK mimics the serial format of The Pickwick Papers: Cohen wrote one chapter of the novel per day, and readers could discuss and respond to the novel before its completion, much like Dickens’ readers did. However, PCKWCK also modernizes that serial format: the novel appeared online and was produced at an incredibly rapid pace, and readers responded in the chatroom not just after Cohen completed a chapter but also during the five hours he spent writing it. Essentially, PCKWCK heightens the “democratic, participatory potentials” of serialization, which Winter identifies in Dickens’ own work, by condensing and updating the Victorian serial format to reflect the internet culture of our time (6).

For pedagogical purposes, PCKWCK is best suited to college-level work due to the violence and language it depicts. However, because the original text can only be found piecemeal online, PCKWCK is currently most useful when studied as a phenomenon rather than a text. In examining PCKWCK as both an adaptation of Dickens’ novel and a cultural artifact that seeks to mediate the temporal gap between Dickens’ moment and ours, we can discover how Cohen’s work and his working habits speak back to The Pickwick Papers by linking Victorian literary production with contemporary internet culture. The reflexive relationship between Dickens’ original novel and Cohen’s adaptation can help us understand Dickens’ role in our culture as well as allow us to use earlier Victorian models of literary production to analyze those extant today.

Questions for Discussion

Compare the online, real-time publication of PCKWCK with the print, serialized publication of The Pickwick Papers discussed by Robert Patten in “Pickwick Papers and the Development of Serial Fiction.” The two novels share an especially important feature: they both allowed their contemporary readers a feeling of connection with the author and text through serialization. Even if he did not always alter his novels to suit readers’ tastes, Dickens took immense interest in his readers’ letters, often written and sent before a novel finished its run. PCKWCK establishes a similarly responsive relationship between author and writer, but that relationship is complicated by the introduction of the trappings of modern digital culture: the presence of the webcam, the anonymity of the chatroom participants, and the speed at which the novel was written. What do the similarities and differences between Dickens’ novel and Cohen’s adaptation suggest about the relationship between the Victorian period’s literary culture and today’s? How do the two modes of publication comment on each other?

Discussion of the ethical implications of the Pickwick Club’s activities is not entirely new. Scholars have written about the novel’s utilization (and subversion) of temperance narratives, interest in reform, treatment of class, and examination of morality (see Claybaugh, Parker, and Tharaud). However, by transforming Dickens’ Pickwickians into operatives for a military contractor, and a wantonly violent and destructive one at that, Cohen’s adaptation places the question of the Pickwick Club’s ethics in a rather extreme light. Why does Cohen cast the PCKWCK Club, marked by its very name as an updated version of Dickens’ Pickwick Club, as such a malevolent entity? Does this decision reflect a negative interpretation of the original Pickwick Club; clubs, organizations, and corporations of today; or both? In what ways does Cohen’s decision comment on the Pickwick Club of Dickens’ novel, Victorian culture generally, or even today’s culture?

Cohen has said that the reason he chose to adapt Dickens’ Pickwick Papers was “The enormous pressure [Dickens] was under. The great pressures of producing that much text. It was the sense that your best inventions are the ones forced out of you” (“An Experiment in Anxiety”). Cohen reinforces this idea by casting PCKWCK’s chatroom participants as the narrator’s torturers, who torment him over the information in his manuscript. What kind of argument might Cohen be making about authorship? What commentary is he offering on Victorian and/or contemporary production of literature and entertainment?

Further Reading

Claybaugh, Amanda. “Dickensian Intemperance: Charity and Reform.” Novel, vol. 37, no. 1-2, 2003, pp. 45–65.

Cohen, Joshua. “An Experiment in Anxiety.” Interview by Andrew Leland. The Believer Logger. The Believer Mag, 15 Oct. 2015. Accessed 14 Oct. 2016.

Dickens, Charles. Life, Letters, and Speeches of Charles Dickens. Edited by Edwin Percy Whipple, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1894.

—. The Pickwick Papers. 1837. Edited by James Kinsley, Oxford UP, 1988.

Johnson, E.D.H. “Dickens and His Readers.The Victorian Web. The Victorian Web, Jan. 2000. Accessed 14 Oct. 2016.

Parker, David. “Pickwick and Reform: Origins.” Dickens Studies Annual, vol. 45, 2014, pp. 1–21.

Patten, Robert. L. “Pickwick Papers and the Development of Serial Fiction.” The Rice University Studies, vol. 61, no. 1, 1975, pp. 51–74.

PCKWCK.Useless Press. Useless Press, 12 Oct. 2015. Accessed 14 Oct. 2016.

Tharaud, Barry. “Form as Process in The Pickwick Papers: The Structure of Ethical Discovery.” Dickens Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 3, 2007, pp. 145–158.

“The Late Charles Dickens.” The Illustrated London News, 18 June 1870, p. 639. The Illustrated London News: Historical Archive, 1842-2003. Accessed 14 Oct. 2016.

Winter, Sarah. The Pleasures of Memory: Learning to Read with Charles Dickens. Oxford UP, 2011.