Joshua Cohen, Book of Numbers – TLS
Like any art, the novel has always been in the business of self-justification. But perhaps because of its dependence on the book – a small object easily burned or confiscated – it has been particularly concerned by threats to its existence. To these, the novel has responded by parading its own importance, with self-exploration, bragging narrators, and unshockable worldliness, or by stories about machines and political systems intent on the book’s eradication, such as 1984 (1949) and Fahrenheit 451 (1953). In the twenty-first century, with the spread of smartphones and portable computers, and the rise of a small number of global corporations controlling them, a new literary genre is emerging. Still in its infancy, the internet novel is interesting as much for what it tells us about the precarious state of fiction in an era when, as Joshua Cohen observes, “they’re phasing out the ink stuff”, as for the myriad ways in which networked technology now permeates our lives. Recent examples include Dave Eggers’s The Circle (2013), about a company surveilling the whole of humanity, Thomas Pynchon’s investigation of the Deep Web in Bleeding Edge (2013), and Isabelle Allende’s consideration of online gaming in Ripper (2014). Now there is Cohen’s Book of Numbers, the most comprehensive of its ilk to date, giving us the history of the internet through the story of the largest tech company in the world, Tetration, (the name means “exponentiated by itself”).
Like Yossarian in Catch 22, who interprets war as an attack on him individually, Cohen takes the internet personally: after all, viability is what’s at stake here, too. Demonstrating just how personally, he names his principal character, a failed novelist, after himself, following Philip Roth’s ‘Philip Roth’ and Paul Auster’s ‘Paul Auster’. To underline his point and outclass the competition, he calls a second character by the same name. This ‘Joshua Cohen’ is Tetration’s founder, an affectless geek born in the 1960s, marked by a mix of influences peculiar to his time and place. His family have gone from shtetl to Stanford in three generations, and to their Judaic tradition have been added the Californian ingredients of start-up capitalism, second wave feminism, macrobiotic diets and Buddhist philosophy. Two further characters complete Cohen’s quartet (four is the important number in Book of Numbers): Moe, the Hindu programming genius behind Tetration, an illegal migrant with a suitcase-full of pseudonyms, who wants to develop the net’s “reversible” potential for “freecommerce” and giving back, and the company president, Kor Dienerowitz, the money guy who thinks he can exploit the freely-given work and socially produced information upon which the net is built.
Cohen tracks the story from obscure beginnings, when early computer work was funded by universities and the military, to the development of machines, gadgets, programmes and apps, now so ubiquitous they “invent us”. This, of course, is the territory of the novel, which means that Book of Numbers is haunted by an ominous sense of exile and obsolescence, something magnified by Cohen’s claiming of the novel for Jewish culture, and by his hero’s preoccupation with the holocaust. At the same time, it is precisely this culture which enriches Book of Numbers, informing its scepticism about power (“never be a sucker”), tendency to digression and over-interpretation (“or else it’s vice versa”, “then again maybe not”), love of words, deployment of jokes, and most importantly, its sense of emanating from a long narrative tradition, being, at least in part, a story of the people of the book (“some of that is a Jew thing”). Specifically, Book of Numbers mimics the fourth book of the Torah, with its tale of the internet generation forever searching for “content that never contents”, in Cohen’s memorable phrase. Unlike the culture and heritage of the book, this content cannot be passed on because it is always provisional, never a final resting place.
By making the novel partisan in this way, Cohen sets up many serio-comic rivalries. His beleaguered novelist-hero is resentful not only of the net, but of the Muslim bombers who upstaged his novel the day after its publication on September 10, 2001; of a publishing industry now dealing in adaptations, properties, options, anything but books, which failed to support this epic work about his mother’s survival of the holocaust; and of all the bad writers in his life, including his Pulitzer-winning best friend, and his “x2b” wife, therapy-blogging their relationship. The most important rivalry, of course, lies between the two Cohens. Tetration’s CEO subjects his namesake to ignominy by employing him to ghostwrite his autobiography, meaning that although the novelist’s name will appear on the book no one will know he is the author. Furthermore, to underscore his authority, the tech boss demands that everyone call him Principal.
Despite his insistence, Principal doesn’t get the last word, or even the first. The story we are reading is not his, but the New York writer’s, a sprawling dairy containing family memoirs, extracts from Jewish websites, his friend’s journalism, his wife’s blogs and her lover’s emails, together with accounts of his new world adventures on the trail of Principal (in Palo Alto, Dubai, Abu Dhabi), and then through the old world (Germany, Austria) in search of the “forbidden” young “Arabess” he has fallen for. Encased in the middle of this record of his life are taped interviews with Principal, drafts of the ‘autobiography’ with acerbic comments and interpolations, and even sections of deleted material, scored through but still legible, as work in progress appears on a computer screen. It’s written as Beta programming is, with everything included and open to revision – historically a mark of the novel’s intellectual integrity, its lack of parochialism, but, here, also a way of revealing how the net’s immediacy and lack of mediation puts pressure on the novel, making its unfolding narratives seem archaic and slow by comparison.
By early 1996, they were set – they had everything but a name.
THIS IS JUST POINTLESS FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK
Q=0138471E:A bv.ghhgty qp83ur j ;j “1aa0,2s9l38ddytvnm,.//
‘Cohen’ then, is implicated in the new technology and the businesses which deliver it (which writer today is not?) but these changes are still recent enough for him to feel cheated out of a literary legacy he believes himself heir to. He opens with an attention-grabbing salvo attacking the reader’s betrayal of the book with those sterile machines: “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands”. In a monograph Cohen published in 2013, much indebted to Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, Attention! A (short) history, he notes the etymology of “attention”: “to grip…to grasp…to take with the hands or hold/mold with the fingers”. This is suggestive of the compact between the grasping reader and shaping writer, a relationship endangered by the keystroke’s “wordprocessing, textgenerating”, and the net’s stream of information, all of it alterable or deletable. Hence ‘Cohen’s’ assertion that while books are made of organic stuff – “hair and plant fibres, glue from boiled horsehooves” – his laptop threatens to stem his creativity and make him infertile, its “waveparticles… reaching my genitals and frying my sperm”.
For all that Cohen demonstrates the threats now facing the novelist in Book of Numbers, he also responds triumphantly to these post-literate times, reiterating the novel’s capacity to absorb new technologies and counter the ways in which they externalize and alienate. In Attention, Cohen argues that the vastness of the net is almost “unwordable”, but in Book of Numbers he re-humanizes its language. He does this with a brilliant facility for voice, conveying all “the lexicon of the prevailing Esperanto”, but primarily with “the unshakeable Jew belief in continuity, narrative, plot”, shaping a history which reminds us the net is not some external force acting upon us, but a product of our work and imagination. If there are times when his record of this tradition, and its successive generations of technological innovation, threatens to overwhelm the story, in the main, Cohen’s writing finds the poetry and pity of our times, and the progress of his characters, self-aware about even their delusions, keeps the reader gripped.
Yet it is in its fidelity to tradition that Book of Numbers poses its greatest challenge. Cohen’s narrator, the egotistical and embattled writer, is as intelligent, witty and provocative as any of his literary predecessors. But something has happened to the worldliness that made this figure such a knowing – and by the reader, trusted – guide. Cohen’s lament is not just for the passing of the book, but for the Jews, once cultural vanguards whose deracination made them exemplary chaperones (think of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses), now finding themselves overtaken: “All pens at the very end of their ink begin to write in Arabic.” When “Cohen” finally tracks down the Yemeni woman he has been pursuing, he notices the names outside her building, all written “in a script resembling my testing this pen, licking its tip then testing again”. But the test she presents is one he walks away from, and she remains only a notional figure (“it wasn’t you…it was a dream”), gestured to in shorthand, like the politics underpinning these cultural shifts: “Also, Israel.”; “(Palestinian Territories)”. Back in America, in a taxi riding home to his mother, ‘Cohen’ muses on how “it used to be”: how he would engage an Arab driver with his habitual Jewish talkiness, wanting to show “that I held by what that Berber slave playwright once wrote, nothing human was alien to me, or rattling, wanting to show respect by talking politics domestic and foreign.” But his worldliness deserts him, and once again “this moment, this intersection” seems beyond him. Unable to acknowledge how this has come to pass, yet wanting to retain a belief in the conviviality of his twinned traditions – the novel’s and the Jew’s – the writer comforts himself with the fantasy that maybe he has said something after all.
This review appeared as ‘The content that never contents” in the TLS on 17.7.2015.