Voids and Fortunes: Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
by Zack Hatfield
We are all made of ones and zeroes; not atoms, viscera or memories, but assembled from differing yarns of binary code. Or so explains the narrator early on in Joshua Cohen’s latest novel, Book of Numbers (Random House), a sweeping opus concerning identity in the cyber era. “The ones our fortunes, the zeroes our voids, our blacker lacking places,” our narrator explains. It’s a poetic, if deeply nihilistic outlook that apotheosizes the book’s theme of how rooted modern technology has become in our lives.
The landscape of the Internet, like the mind, is complicated to map in fiction, its parameters immeasurable, its horizons always broadening. Its vast networks mirror the cerebral avenues Cohen sends us through in this story, which revolves around a novelist manqué ghostwriting a memoir for a “googlionaire” tech tycoon who shares his name (the book dubs him Principal, making confusion less likely). This doppelgänger — who may remind readers of Steve Jobs or other tech moguls — owns Tetration, a corporation comparable to Google and Apple. We follow the firm from its origins in programming counterculture as it moves from producing hardware to computers to phones, eventually creating surveillance technologies to monitor Americans. Fortunately, Book of Numbers refrains from full-blown Silicon Valley satire (too easy) or a type of Brave New Novel for our generation (too uninspired — see: The Circle), though the farcical gears gyrate throughout. Instead, Cohen evokes a panorama of everything leading up to the present with a constellation of topics that include the history of the search engine, the publishing industry, religion and art. It’s a work that, like much contemporary literary fiction, can be considered as much cultural criticism as a product of the imagination.
The extravagant altitude of Cohen’s authorial voice is one that requires acclimation. His language teems with digital argot, the sentences frequently run-ons, his paragraphs overflown and referential. At times the fictional data Cohen shoehorns into the novel threatens to freeze the bandwidth of the human cerebrum processing it. The salvo of neologisms, the jarring lyricism, the well-cadenced language steeped in self-indulgence all make comparisons to Pynchon and Wallace inescapable. Yet there’s also a humor in the vein of Phillip Roth or even Woody Allen. The distracted neurosis of the narrator reflects the paranoia and work ethic we’ve inherited in the digital age (“just completed an email, nonfiction,” he says when asked if he’s working on any writing). But just when one is beginning to become fluent in the rhythms of the ghostwriter’s thought pattern, his point of view is traded for hundreds of pages to the less interesting character Principal, who refers to himself in the first person plural and indulges in startup zen-speak while revealing his life story. Partly told in emails, code and transcripts between the two Cohens, the middle section lags. Following the liveliness of the first fifth of the novel, it feels like shifting down a few gears on Cohen’s information superhighway.
The thematic pursuit of Book of Numbers unravels when we consider its similarities to the Internet itself. Both testify to our vanishing attention spans, the paradoxes of communication made easier. They yield to the grammar of chaos. But throughout the weaker parts of the novel it can feel like there are too many tabs open. In the recent book Where I’m Reading From, critic and novelist Tim Parks writes that one flaw of the novel in the digital age “is not that it doesn’t participate in modern technology, can’t talk about it or isn’t involved with it,” but that there is a “slow weakening of the sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world.” Culture is forsaken for accessibility. Parks’s diagnosis, that novels invest too much in universality, is reversed in Book of Numbers, whose broad cultural themes are made possible with prose that couldn’t care less about being accessible. A sacrifice is made as Cohen’s gratuitous language — simultaneously unreadable and virtuosic — is what imparts the disorder of the Digital Age so effectively. In a world where almost everything is at one’s fingertips, Cohen makes sure his writing isn’t.
Like many postmodernist and post-postmodernist endeavors, Book of Numbers struggles at times to find convincing pathos, both hamstrung and propelled by its tangle of pragmatisms and synaptic imagery. But as fictional Cohen’s cannabalistic ego is revealed (he blames the failure of his novel on 9/11, which occurred a day after his publication date) an emotional cavity in the book feels only necessary to reveal the vanishing humanity in an era avalanched with algorithms, of so many usernames and passwords, of endless pixels. As the reader wades through the narrator’s experiences across several timezones and mental states, it becomes painfully clear that in a technological world where it is impossible to be “plausibly alone,” as he claims, loneliness still abounds.
Book of Numbers alludes to the friction between the online world and the art of the novel; consider its opening line: “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off” (despite the sheer weight of the book’s nearly 600 pages, I felt guilty and got the physical copy). Although it could be understandably placed next to, say, Ben Lerner’s 10:04 on the shelf — both are bracingly of-their-time metanarratives that concern NYC novelists prone to self-conscious digressions — Cohen’s novel has much less poetic chemistry than Lerner’s, more complacent as a screed that helps unpack the post-9/11 world. Though it might prove a convincing time capsule, the book redeems because it’s ahead of its time. Cohen would probably scoff at those who call this an “Internet Novel,” and he’d be right to. With its acrobatic diction and ambition, it indicates that the Internet has infiltrated the matrix of our psychology, our culture and everyday lives. And what is the novel supposed to do if not provide insight into our minds and everyday existence? Despite its glitches, Book of Numbers earns its applause through a magisterial attempt to solve life’s grand equation, one that storytellers have been and will most likely be computing in every eon, with or without wifi.
by Joshua Cohen