Book of Num­bers: A Novel

  • Review
By – June 5, 2015

When a nov­el has a nar­ra­tor, who is a down on his luck writer named Joshua Cohen, hired to write the biog­ra­phy of a tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­ny head, also named Joshua Cohen, and the author of the nov­el itself is named Joshua Cohen, we know where we are — in the meta-lands (as they might say in New Jersey).

Joshua Cohen is a much her­ald­ed young nov­el­ist of enor­mous gifts and ambi­tion. Until now he has been pub­lished by small, bou­tique pub­lish­ers like Dalkey Archive and Twist­ed Spoon Press. He has writ­ten both short fic­tion and an enor­mous, chal­leng­ing exper­i­men­tal nov­el, Witz. Cohen has been com­pared to Thomas Pyn­chon and David Fos­ter Wal­lace. Heady com­pa­ny for a young writer! Book of Num­bers, how­ev­er, is pub­lished by Ran­dom House, the most main­stream of pub­lish­ing hous­es, and despite its elab­o­rate shift­ing nar­ra­tives, typo­graph­ic play­ful­ness, and odd vocab­u­lary, it is a plea­sure to read. It both embraces and eschews the plea­sures of con­ven­tion­al narrative.

The out­line of the nov­el is that the writer Joshua Cohen has been down on his luck since his nov­el had the bad luck of being pub­lished on Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001 and despite pre-pub­li­ca­tion promise has been with­drawn over­whelmed the trau­ma of the day. Cohen has been work­ing as a crit­ic and a hireling, until his agent intro­duces him to Joshua Cohen, the founder and C.E.O. of a tech com­pa­ny, Tetra­tion, loose­ly based on Google. The tech guru, Cohen, wants the writer, Cohen, to write his biography.

This basic sce­nario allows Joshua Cohen the nov­el­ist to sat­i­rize the pub­lish­ing world, to give some bril­liant set pieces on the chaos of down­town Man­hat­tan on the morn­ing of 9/11, and to explore the wild crazy days and nights of the Sil­i­con Val­ley heyday.

Cohen is gift­ed at cre­at­ing lan­guage, vocab­u­lary and syn­tax for his dif­fer­ent inter­sect­ing worlds. The Tetra­tion founder, for exam­ple, has styl­is­tic tics: , algo­rithms become algys, and his par­ents are M‑Unit and D‑Unit. Cohen, the writer, cre­ates a voice for his estranged wife’s new boyfriend, an illit­er­ate actor; his estranged wife has her own voice in her blog. At one point her blog has a nod to Mol­ly Bloom’s solil­o­quy from Ulysses–anoth­er clever transmutation.

Cohen, the writer, is whisked off to the Mid­dle East, to work on the biog­ra­phy. He begins to under­stand the larg­er pic­ture, that Tetra­tion has been used by the gov­ern­ment to gath­er infor­ma­tion on pri­vate cit­i­zens through search engine data mining.

Lan­guage rum­bles, dips, and cas­cades in this nov­el. There are pages of text with strike-through print. In the age of the inter­net Cohen is odd­ly recre­at­ing what it would be like to look through a writer’s note­book when drafts now dis­ap­pear with the press of a keypad.

As a nov­el, Book of Num­bers, suc­ceeds on many lev­els. It is poly­phon­ic, self-reflec­tive, prob­lema­tizes its own project, all that a hip post-mod­ern nov­el should do; and yet it is odd­ly old-fash­ioned in a pos­i­tive sense. In a world where encryp­tion is now a word in the head­lines, Book of Num­bers may be a key text for our crazy century.

Relat­ed Content:

Read Joshua Cohen’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Posts

The Doomed Generation

Josh Han­ft holds Advanced Degrees in Eng­lish and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and curat­ed the renowned read­ing series, Scrib­blers on the Roof, for over twen­ty years.

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