Joshua Cohen has just been dubbed “a major American writer” by the New York Times and a “great American novelist” by Tablet. At 34, he is the author of eight books, including the 800-page Witz and now the 600-page Book of Numbers.
In Book of Numbers, a failed novelist is, like the author, named Joshua Cohen, but he is about ten years older than the actual Joshua Cohen — he’s paunchy, losing his hair, and in the middle of a protracted divorce. He’s been hired by another Joshua Cohen, referred to in the book as “Principal,” the CEO of Tetration, a fictional company that reads like a merger of Google and Apple. Principal is a Steve Jobs-like figure: in ill health and devoted to the California version of an Eastern religion. The novel retraces the birth and rise of the Internet, as well as the much longer — and, in some important ways, ending — history of print culture. It’s about surveillance and data and the impact of these on all of us now and, as the novel’s long view of history would suggest, in the years ahead.
“This is a novel about so many things,” Cohen told me in a recent interview. “I wanted each review to sound like it was of a completely different book.” Let this animated GIF-packed listicle be your guide to what a few of those things are and a bit of what Cohen might be up to.
In reviews, Cohen’s writing is often compared to the work of David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, which he’s been quick to dismiss as “bad criticism, good publicity.” Nevertheless, here’s a comparison: Wallace used fractals as a form for structuring the infinite within a single novel in his Infinite Jest. Joshua Cohen, in emulation of his novel’s primary subjects — computing, the Internet — strives to contain the infinite in the same way as computers: through permutations of binaries. A combination of zeros and ones can be made to represent nearly all of recorded human knowledge. Infinite information can be built from two digits, two symbols. Cohen’s novel is composed through permutations of the basic binary at its core — the two Joshua Cohens — but the novel takes up other binaries as well: East-West, Jewish-Muslim, male-female. From these it builds outward to encompass a vast number of subjects.
In a recent interview, Cohen commented, “Words are meant to be heard. No one wants to hear you to read out numbers.” Recounting the IPO of his company Tetration, “Principal” remarks that the number of shares he kept for himself was a reference to the square root of two. He then begins to recite the digits of the square root from memory. “’1.4142135623730 — stop us when you have had enough.’” The digits are endless — the infinite contained within the number two — and Principal continues reciting until the character Joshua Cohen begs him to stop.
If Wallace’s distinctive mark is the footnote, Cohen’s, in Book of Numbers, is the slash. It’s fitting that the book should choose as its mark a symbol that in writing represents an either/or binary but, through its use in computing, has come to indicate the subdirectories which add up to the greater whole of a URL. It’s a fitting mark for a book about the collapse of print culture and, along with it, borders between private and public, inside and outside.
The book’s three sections are numbered zero, one, zero — the binary for the number two. The first section is centered on Joshua Cohen the fictional writer, the second on Principal — and these two sections, surprisingly for a book about the internet, contain almost no internet content. It’s only after this binary has been set up, in the book’s strong and very funny final third, that it explodes polyvocally with internet content: irate blog posts and emails that find their humor in the double-meanings and ambiguities created by the sloppy writing that nearly all of us use online. Up until this point, the reader has been inside the minds of these two Joshua Cohens — both of them self-involved and often careless toward others. It’s only in this final section that we get a chance to hear from the other people in their lives.
The Internet Killing the Novel
Cohen’s friend and fellow writer Caleb is, at the start of the novel, a war correspondent filing stories on Al Qaeda from inside Afghanistan, but, after receiving a six-figure advance and all manner of awards for his account of his time there, he heads off to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where in pursuit of writing a novel, he becomes ever more self-regarding. He emails Cohen about that contemporary false doctrine that the suspense necessary for fiction can’t exist in the digital era:
“Cal wrote that while technology itself might be ‘naturally ambivalent,’ he was certain that it was ‘anathema’ to novels, ‘to the vicissitudes of the novel,’ in that for a novel to ‘function properly’…its characters had to be kept apart from each other, ‘separated into missing each other and never communicating,’ and that now in this present of pdas and online, people were rarely ever ‘plausibly alone…’”
It’s an oft-espoused theory on which the novel rightly calls bullshit — only to then make that itself into a joke when Cohen, in hiding and maintaining the security of high-value data, is forbidden from going online. He’s forced to be incommunicado from all the novel’s other major players in ways that allow for plot machinations. It’s a section the Joshua Cohen, the IRL writer — author of Book of Numbers — wrote while he himself had no internet access, and the writing of character, the fictional Joshua Cohen, in these chapters is filled with lists of things he wished he could look up online, the information one would usually research while writing.
The Death of Print Culture
Joshua Cohen the character receives his literary apprenticeship in a bookstore in New York’s financial district. Two generations old, the bookstore originally simply sold stock sheets, then began to sell Judaica, then, as it passed down to the younger generation, literary fiction and genre paperbacks to the financial district’s lunch rush. After the owner is killed by falling debris on 9/11, the bookstore’s inventory is sold. The books that can’t be sold are donated to the prisons. The land is sold to the highest bidder and — in the logic of New York real-estate — converted into a 24-hour ATM kiosk. Images from this narrative recur over the course of the novel. It begins as a darkly humorous commentary on an increasingly corporate and characterless Manhattan — a familiar trope in contemporary fiction. It becomes a haunting and elegiac commentary on the end of print culture. What will come after the book? Ominously glowing screens and global finance — volatile, aggressive, and fickle.
In terms of gallows humor for the death of print, Book of Numbers finds it in Amazon’s impact on publishing. In the novel, Joshua Cohen has been funding his life with his soon-to-be ex-wife’s credit card. Her new boyfriend confronts him about the charges. The first charge, for Amazon.com, her boyfriend writes, was “so negligible we must have missed the statement at the time… we are guessing books.” The value of books has been so diminished that it nearly escapes notice. Another aside concerns a pair of news stories titled, “Slicing, Dicing, Ebook Pricing,” and “Remote Revision: Amazon Alters Ebook Content Without Consent.” Though, of course, I’m writing this in a library in which actually books have been shredded to make laminated displays behind the computer monitors and looking up these references using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.
Like the biblical Book of Numbers, the novel’s three-part structure includes some meandering travels through the Middle East. Likewise, characters share names with their biblical counterparts: Moses, Miriam, Caleb, Aaron, and Joshua. But the resemblance is fairly loose. Cohen’s interest in the Bible’s Numbers — the Torah’s Numbers — is in part with what follows it. In Numbers, God destroys the Israelites, who have already been punished to wander in the desert. Up until that point, the Torah has offered a nearly seamless chronology of events. “And so then right after we erase this entire generation,” Cohen has said, “that next book Deuteronomy, D’Varum: Just laws. Laws. That’s it. The narrative’s done. The narrative’s done because we killed them all.” Cohen’s attention is compelled by this collapse in the narrative tradition. D’Varum is the end of the Torah. Narrative is over, and after this there can be only laws.
Cohen’s interest is in part in these three religions built on holy books, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. One of Cohen’s central questions here is what happens to the “People of the Book” — his primary interest is with regards to Judaism, but his inquiry includes holy books as a whole: Christians and the Bible, Muslims and the Koran. When books are no longer a part of the culture and the role they once had can no longer be remembered, how will those ways of thinking be reconfigured and what will be lost?
In two baffling and unsettling scenes, Cohen offers unflattering caricatures of Muslims — an Emir threatens a Slavic prostitute with a knife, an Arab husband viciously beats his wife. There’s a cartoonish quality to these that makes it hard to get a read on Cohen’s intent. It’s perhaps one of the book’s biggest gambles that empathy and nuance for Arab characters is withheld until nearly 400 pages later — though the eventual recipients of that empathy are relatively secular.
The Bible is famous for its ‘begat’s — its endless family lineages. Cohen, in Book of Numbers, throws these into reverse-gear with his word derivations. Cohen pointedly traces the term “firewall” backward from its current usage in the sense of software or hardware used to protect a computer or a network from outside access. According to Cohen, it’s a term derived from a barrier to stop the spread of fire — particularly to protect the audience when fire was used for theatrical effect onstage. But it also shares its origins with the Iron Curtain, a term associated with the Cold War but which has its origins in the Muslim belief in Gates of Iron built to protect Persia, but it goes back even further to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, 200 CE, “Not even a wall of Iron can separate Israel from its God.” Cohen concludes “Both Judaism and Islam speak of God protecting us with, or as, ‘a wall of fire.’ ‘This relates to the desert practice of keeping oneself safe from predators by surrounding oneself with fire.’”
While it’s a term that’s relevant to the book’s content, I suspect Cohen is playing it with as a structuring device. More on that shortly.
Book of Numbers contains much that is likely to offend in its dealings with race, gender, and religion. Here’s a taste from Joshua Cohen the character’s soliloquy on how each country’s electrical plug resembles their ethnic and national character: “[I]s it the Chinese or the Japanese socket that has the slitty slanted eyes and slashes for ears?” Here’s another that raised my eyebrows: “a black but white goth buff transgender person entered — an XX or an XY or a chromosomally spliced Ze.” In yet another passage, he imagines women being eaten by sharks and only their silicone breast implants rising to the surface. The first third of the book is packed with half jokes on identity politics that seem designed to rankle.
What is Cohen up to? It’s an odd choice for a writer who in his role as a book critic for Harper’s and elsewhere is hardly a xenophobe — indeed, he’s a passionate advocate for literature in translation. Most of this confrontational material is frontloaded into the book’s first third. Am I giving Cohen too much credit to suggest that he has built this as a firewall to repel many readers from entering the core of the novel? While social media channels us toward information that validates our and our peers’ worldview, to enter Cohen’s novel the reader must through a barrier of contrarian world view.
Cohen claims his intent in Book of Numbers is in part to mark the end, at last, of western white male Judeo-Christian control of markets and governments (and their future control by other countries, races, and genders). Accordingly, a recurring image in the book’s later sections is the “Great Wheel” of the Samsara cycle — the circle of life, death, rebirth, and karma. In this book about technology, it inevitably brings to mind Apple’s famous “rainbow wheel of death” — the icon that begins to spin on-screen when the computer is about to freeze — but reconfigures it as this symbol of change.