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since his novel had the bad luck of being published on September 11, 2001 and despite pre-publication promise has been withdrawn overwhelmed the trauma of the day.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.
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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.