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.

April Lindner’s YA Bronte Novels

by Sara K. Day, Southern Arkansas University

Charlotte Brontё’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontё’s Wuthering Heights, both originally published in 1847, offer readers strong-willed heroines, moody romantic heroes, and memorable settings. They Jane coverhave also become touchstones of the Victorian era for many readers, due at least in part to their frequent appearances on high school and college reading lists. April Lindner’s two recent young adult novels Jane (2010) and Catherine (2013) capitalize on the existing link between the Brontё sisters’ novels and adolescent readers by retelling these works set in modern-day America.

Jane opens on the struggles of college student Jane Moore as she struggles to regain her footing after the sudden death of her financially secure but emotionally bankrupt parents. Already distanced from her two older siblings—who stand in for the cruel cousins of Brontё’s tale—she must leave school and secure employment. She quickly finds herself employed as a governess by Nico Rathburn, a world-famous rock star. Though Jane considers herself plain and unlovable, Nico engages her in a whirlwind romance that soon culminates in a proposal, a series of tragic revelations, and an eventual happy ending.

Like Jane, Lindner’s Catherine puts a rock and roll spin on its Victorian source material: in this case, the title character grows up not in Wuthering Heights but in an apartment above The Underground, the famous rock club her father owns. Decades later, her teen daughter Chelsea travels to The Underground to search for her long-missing mother and finds Hence, a one-time rock star who had also been Catherine’s first and enduring love. In a narrative that pairs Chelsea’s modern-day story with diary entries from her mother’s adolescence, Lindner slowly unravels the mystery of Catherine’s disappearance.

Because many adolescent readers will encounter the original Brontё novels (either as class assignments or through other cultural references, such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga), Lindner’s works can act as accessible ways to engage with some of the major themes and conflicts of the source material. Notably, though, some of the most important discussions that might emerge from comparisons of these novels to the Brontёs’ texts should involve the portrayal of gender roles and attitudes towards romance, passion, and marriage, since Lindner’s modern adaptations might in many ways be understood as more “conventional” than their Victorian roots. These texts may also be a useful starting point for the differences between adaptation and fanfiction, as some readers have raised questions and debates about how Lindner’s novels might blur those boundaries.

Questions for Discussion:

The English moors in which both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are set have become important elements of the ongoing critical conversations about both novels. How does relocating these tales to modern-day America affect other textual elements such as mood, atmosphere, and characterization? Can New York City, in particular, be understood as an analog to the English moors?

The Brontёs’ novels begin with extended descriptions of their main characters’ early lives, from Jane’s time in the home of her uncaring aunt and as a student at Lowood to Catherine and Heathcliff’s wild childhoods on the moors. In her retellings, Lindner offers only a very brief consideration of her protagonists’ experiences as children; indeed, Catherine and Hence do not even meet until late adolescence. Why would Lindner omit or abridge her protagonists’ childhoods, and what impact does this have on our understanding of Jane, Catherine, and their respective romantic partners?

The Brontё sisters—including Anne, whose Tenant of Wildfell Hall has not (yet) inspired a retelling by Lindner—have all been credited with expressing protofeminist ideas in their personal and fictional writings. How do these YA retellings engage with the potential feminism of the original Jane and Catherine?

Both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights feature famous Byronic heroes in the form of Rochester and Heathcliff. How is the figure of the Byronic hero portrayed in Lindner’s novels, and how does their status as YA literature shape these portrayals?

Further Readings:

Franklin, Caroline. The Female Romantics: Nineteenth-Century Women Novelists and Byronism. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Kapurch, Katie. “‘Unconditionally and Irrevocably’: Theorizing the Melodramatic Impulse in Young Adult Literature through the Twilight Saga and Jane Eyre.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 37.2 (2012): 164-87. Print.

Rubik, Margarete, and Elke Mettinger-Schartmann. A Breath of Fresh Eyre: Intertextual and Intermedial Reworkings of Jane Eyre. New York: Rodopi, 2007. Print.

Stein, Atara. The Byronic Hero in Film, Fiction, and Television. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

Stoneman, Patsy. Brontё Transformations: The Cultural Dissemination of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. New York: Prentice Hall, 1996. Print.