- Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen
Harvill Secker, 580 pp, £16.99, June 2015, ISBN 978 1 84655 865 8
The American novelist Joshua Cohen arrives with the reputation of a wizard in the making, but his magic is as likely to blow every fuse in the house of fiction as transport it into a new dimension. There are wonderful things here cloaked with an invisibility spell, tucked away in the middle of the book, where only the stubbornest seeker after enchantment will find them. Three mighty subjects are proposed and sabotaged in the opening section, one of them in the opening sentence: ‘If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off.’ So much for the fraught relationship of art and science, and the struggle of high culture to survive in a digitised age.
The first book written by the narrator of Book of Numbers, ‘Joshua Cohen’, was called Polyn, and was based on his mother’s experiences under Nazism (she survived but her family was exterminated). Its publication was eclipsed by another world-historical event, the plane hijackings of 11 September 2001. The launch party was hardly over before the streets of lower Manhattan were full of ash, and the last thing anyone was thinking about – apart from the author, naturally – was the fate of a book.
Self-obsession of an ordinary sort, you might think, standard schlemiel come-uppance, but it gets royal treatment in the early part of the book, the part where a reader would normally be getting the measure of both author and narrator, which is easier when they have the good manners to remain formally separate. The Jewish genocide and 9/11 are the subjects of much compulsive nihilistic riffing in Book of Numbers. Working on the Holocaust-witnessing book is described as ‘like planning an invasion of Poland’. As for the terrorist assault on the Great Satan of the United States, it’s seen as more precisely targeted: ‘10 Arab Muslims hijacked two airplanes and flew them into the Twin Towers of my Life & Book. My book was destroyed – my life has never recovered. And so it was, the End before the beginning: two jets fuelled with total strangers, terrorists … bombing my career, bombing me personally.’ Pointless to object to the ugliness of that ‘fuelled’ when outrage is the whole point. As for the conspiracy theory that no Jews died or were harmed in the attacks, ‘what am I?’ The 9/11 provocations die down, but the Holocaust ones are still going strong hundreds of pages later, with the assertion that ‘genocide, like publishing, is 66.6 per cent a problem of distribution.’ Even the choice of figure to express the impossibly large number of emails that need to be picked up after a long period offline – six million – can hardly be casual.
Transgression is a hallowed literary procedure, but here it seems reflexive rather than purposeful, and psychologically flat. Those who build Holocaust memorials usually leave it to others to deface them, but the mysterious coexistence in the narrator of a desecratory urge along with a desire to commemorate suffering isn’t explored. ‘Joshua Cohen’ is on good terms with his mother, to the point where he marks holidays with symbolic good wishes even when they aren’t able to communicate (‘
Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kipper: a happy healthy year to you, Moms’). The strike-through option offered by word processing packages makes it possible to cancel utterances while leaving them on view, though there’s a lot to be said for more nuanced and traditional ways of conveying ambivalence on the page.
Transgression works to clear a space, as for instance Philip Roth’s gleeful repudiation of sexual respectability in and after Portnoy’s Complaint freed him to sift through his inheritance, literary and cultural, and to keep only what he wanted. Misogyny was part of the unstable explosive charge that gave him lift-off, though it could be described more flatteringly as a refusal to leave women on a pedestal that demeans both parties, the worshipper and the object of worship. The misogyny of ‘Joshua Cohen’, dilute and layered with self-dislike, doesn’t seem to be clearing him any space, to judge by this portrait of his estranged wife, Rachel, in the language of advertising, her professional world:
Imagine taking home this beautiful young pale-skinned blackhaired late-model Jewess. Into fitness, healthy living. Raised good in better Yonkers. Mother a Hebrew School teacher, which means for her a traditional education. Father a chief risk officer for an energy provider in the Midwest. They’re not in touch, but still he makes his payments. Imagine getting to know this girl, a recently promoted sr creative who’ll stay jr by a decade for ever. Think of the investment opportunity. NYU grad, very oral.
All of these apparent selling points are disguised negatives. ‘Maternally bonded. Daddy issues. CV relative to youth indicates a stop at nothing ambition.’ Above all, ‘Jewish means “babycrazy”.’ One of Rach’s many grievances, posted on her blog, is that he never wanted a child, to which his forlorn response is: ‘Didn’t I try not just to want one but to have one?’ The formula might be more eloquent the other way round, hinting at something he keeps well hidden, namely a desire to mesh with other people’s priorities rather than manipulate them.
Drifting professionally and privately, ‘Joshua Cohen’ is saved from inertia by a startling commission, to write, or ghost-write, a memoir to appear under the name of the 14th richest man in America (18th richest in the world), CEO and founder of Tetration.com, an all-powerful internet search engine. Called Joshua Cohen. On the paperwork for the proposed book this Joshua Cohen is referred to as the ‘Principal’, which offers a solution to the problem of referring to the proliferating Cohens without multiple quotation marks or superscript numbers. ‘Joshua Cohen’ and Principal are close in age, though Principal is a product of the West Coast and a different set of assumptions, his father a computer engineer, his mother an academic linguist. It’s not even the case that the approach was made, or authorised, because of the congruence of the names, something Principal discovered only after the event.
So arrives the motif of the doppelgänger, the shadow self or secret sharer, a trope both sturdy and venerable. Philip Roth gave it a postmodern shake-up in Operation Shylock, where there are two Philip Roths in circulation, one of them an impostor, though even the ‘real’ Philip Roth in the book (like the ‘real’ Joshua Cohen of Book of Numbers) has no philosophically enforceable link with the author, however much they may seem to coincide biographically. In Roth’s book the doubling brought themes of identity and reliability into play, while here it’s a mechanism (providing, in fact, the basic impetus of the plot) for bringing into contact two unrelated worlds, even two strongly opposed worldviews.
The odd thing about this device is that it would present few problems of plausibility with any name but Cohen. Cohens (Kohanim), however, constitute a name-line that amounts to a virtual bloodline, with a remarkable degree of genetic overlap. People called Smith are named for the occupation of their ancestors – once upon a time every community needed a forge and people with the skill to work it. Cohens too are named for the occupation of their ancestors, priests of the Temple in Jerusalem, and there was only one of those at a time, and then none. The priesthood will be the occupation of Kohanim descendants when the Temple is rebuilt at last, its altar reconsecrated by a Cohen with a properly attested genealogy (the ashes of a perfect red heifer are also involved). It’s out of character for ‘Joshua Cohen’, narcissistic or faux-narcissistic as he constantly is, not even to wonder if he and Principal or their forebears haven’t met somewhere, as the statistics would render probable, on the trail that leads back (uninterruptedly, if the Temple is to be rebuilt without blasphemy) all the way to Aaron. It’s his only modesty moment. (There is an Aaron in the book, but he’s the narrator’s agent, mildly a father figure but no Patriarch.)
Antiheroes are nothing new, and the self-obsessed psychology that seeks an excuse for nastiness in the claim that it is its own worst enemy is also familiar. Pace is crucial in the selling of such a character, but the pace of Book of Numbers is perversely managed, slack in the sections devoted to ‘Joshua Cohen’, densely impacted when he finally stops hogging the prose microphone and lets Principal get a word in. It’s some way past page 150 when this happens.
In (can it be?) a third of a century of reviewing I’ve never before come across a book that finds its feet a third of the way through, even though that prospect is the wishful thinking that keeps conscientious reviewers reading on against all the odds. A book that starves its readers to death before deigning to feed them the promised delicacies is evidence of a temperament to which the label ‘passive-aggressive’ hardly does justice. Why start catering to your guests when the sensible ones have gone home?
The only effective aspect of the opening slab of the book is that it naturalises by repetition the word ‘tetrate’ and its cognate terms (Tetbook, Tetheld), so that after a hundred pages or so it’s a faint surprise to find yourself Googling rather than tetrating. One or the other is likely to be required in order to track down the rare words cherished by a style that preens itself on arcane vocabulary (‘pantophagy’, ‘inconcinnous’, ‘hircine’ ‘brecciation’) but clumps along on the level of rhythm and sentence structure. The wordplay in a sentence like this one seems more like a nervous tic, a sort of Tourette’s, than anything enjoyably ludic: ‘Outside, the doublesided sandwichboard spread obscenely with the recurring daily specials still daily, still special, the boardbreaded sandwiches and soups scrawled out of scraps, the goulash and souvlaki and scampi, leftover omelettes and spoiled rotten quiches, the menus inside unfolding identically – greasy.’ The laborious repetition and echoing of words doesn’t add anything to the vividness of the scene-setting (rather the reverse) while the orgy of ‘s’-sounds seems arbitrary. Meanwhile the grammar is out of focus: if there’s a main verb it must be ‘spread’, but that leaves ‘the menus inside’ stranded. A sentence this elaborate, however poorly articulated, congratulating itself on the empty neatness of ‘spoiled rotten’ and ‘daily specials, still daily, still special’, can’t get away with changing its spots at the last moment, with that throwaway ‘greasy’ – though the effect of so much blurring of detail and smearing of rhetoric is to give the prose a greasy feel in its own right. In the microcosm of this sentence is played out the whole conflict between overweening literary ambition and modest technical accomplishment.
Those compound words printed without hyphens may be a nod to Ulysses, though it’s not so much hommage as self-sabotage. Joyce’s effects, however complex, are precisely managed: ‘Grossbooted draymen rolled barrels dullthudding out of Prince’s stores and bumped them up on the brewery float. On the brewery float bumped dullthudding barrels rolled by grossbooted draymen out of Prince’s stores.’ The grammar is unproblematic, with the repetition mirroring repeated action, and there’s a subtle onomatopoeia involved, as if the bouncing, rebounding sounds are mimicking something not even directly mentioned in the text, the syncopated impacts of the barrels as they collide.
The infelicity of style remains even when the book enters the territory of sex comedy, pitched more at the level of Tom Sharpe, say, than Philip Roth. ‘Joshua Cohen’, in Dubai to work on the memoir, intervenes when an Arab woman is being beaten by her husband in a hotel corridor (‘She was a wadded tossed abaya, a smutty black abayayaya – trill it through the nose, like a jihad ululant’), and becomes obsessed with her. ‘Aroused by a woman wearing a sweaty tent’, he attempts masturbation: ‘I downed trou, tried to get a honker. Tried to beat my cock like it was leukaemia. Twisted my scrotum like the wallsafe knob. Then I switched to stroke my shaft with the hand that bled and throbbed. I managed a half honk, a sputter. A corpse’s lean on the wheel.’ Having failed to exorcise his fascination with her, he stalks her in a shopping mall: ‘Her featurelessness was of a supernumerary tit atop tits, though in her strain to speed ahead a waist was shaped atop that ass. Swishy hips, thighs that rubbed. Becoming again all ass. Even her feet were ass. She was an ass in heels. One cheek to each, wobbling for balance.’ After this triumph of perverse objectification, beside which a Hans Bellmer doll looks like a Kewpie one, it’s almost disappointing that ‘Joshua Cohen’ should develop tender feelings for this woman, and even helps her escape to Europe. A fetish cartoon turns at short notice into a love object, and then into an opportunity for self-sacrifice. After such an effort to hit the jackpot of transgression, this seems like a trifling payout in the currency of redemption and human feeling. An abrupt transition from sex pest to Samaritan can hardly qualify as a character arc, and the way ‘Joshua Cohen’ signs off on his feeling for her is all very Hollywood: ‘I realised it wasn’t you that I’d been after. It was a dream. It was another life. It was forgiveness – it was to be forgiven.’
It’s common enough for a long novel to have a short one inside it, wildly signalling to be let out, less common for the required cuts to be obvious. Here they are as definite as the marks plastic surgeons make to indicate where the chisel of improvement should be brought to bear. There’s no inherent reason for this to be a long book, beyond the primitive equation of length with importance. The biography of an actual internet pioneer would be a bulky volume, both because the market will bear it, and because the technical details are where the interest, if any, lies. In the same way a real-life Gatsby would get the doorstop or headstone treatment, while Fitzgerald had the option of concision, as did Joshua Cohen.
Principal’s fragmentary narrative, the raw material of the proposed biography, takes up the middle 250 pages of the book. It’s a transcribed interview, in the first person, but the first person plural. ‘We’ and ‘us’, those regal pronouns, soon come to communicate not self-sufficiency but an extreme of isolation. On the occasion, once in a blue moon, that Principal needs to indicate that an experience was actually shared, he has to explain that his use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ in this case indicates the ‘inclusionary plural’. It’s in this section that the figure of ‘Joshua Cohen’ proves its usefulness, asking Principal follow-up questions and modelling a baffled layperson’s reactions to hard science and technological jargon. Layers of annotation imply a hinterland of research and conflicting testimony that doesn’t need to appear on the page:
July 1995, they took the site offline and sold their contributor list [FOR HOW MUCH AND TO WHOM? I AM WRITING ABOUT A MAN WHO SOLD A LIST!!!!] to a new emarketing firm called Schlogistics,
whose CEO, Randy Schloger, would marry Heather Trapezzi. With that income and the proceeds [HOW MUCH MONEY AGAIN? BECAUSE I MOTHERFUCKING CARE!!!!@#$per cent] from the last four editions of the Diatessaron, Cohen, de Groeve and O’Quinn bought three Ultra Enterprises and three Intel Pentiums, both loaded [right word?] with Linux, which they racked [right word?] in the maintenance shed below Cohen’s unit. The Trapezzis refused to accept any rent for the shed [but weren’t they just the management, not ownership?], so Cohen drafted an agreement on the back of a Shell gas station receipt [though at which point did he or anyone else get a car?], giving the accommodating couple a 1 per cent share in whatever resulted, subsequently turning them into multimillionaires, which is why today ‘Super’ Sal Trapezzi is still listed on Tetration’s About page, and even in SEC filings, as ‘Head Janitor 4 Life’.
This would qualify as an economical set of devices, if the whole idea of narrative economy hadn’t been thrown overboard in the book’s first quarter.
Principal doesn’t map neatly onto any of the real-life giants of the computer industry or the internet and Cohen sensibly removes them from the parallel universe of his creation, so there’s no mention of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak, or Tim Berners-Lee. Onto the emptied skies of his own planetarium he is then able to project a new constellation. Bodies of a lower magnitude are allowed to twinkle faintly in the new dark – eBay, Samsung, IBM, Hewlett Packard. Microsoft gets passing mentions, though it might have been simpler to do without. Tetration, the firm Principal founded, overlaps with the territory of Google, since the ability to search – while giving advertisers access to the searchers – is a fundamental part of the company’s business, but also of Apple, since Tetration is a dominant force in the manufacture of computers, tablets and mobile phones. There’s no equivalent in the book of Microsoft and Apple’s uneasy duopoly, with the result that the business history of personal computing has been drastically simplified, but no one reading the book is likely to feel starved of complexity.
The virtues of the general strategy of avoiding recognisable real-world parallels are made clear when Joshua Cohen violates them to introduce the character of Thor Ang Balk. However much distracting detail is provided (he’s ‘the product of the inadvisable coupling of a Norwegian and a Swede’), the moment his website, ‘b-Leaks’, is mentioned, along with ‘the intel memos he leaked from Afghanistan. Renditions. Detentions. Waterboardings. Torture’, Thor Ang Balk might as well have been introduced from the first as an Australian with prematurely grey hair resident in the UK. The index of refraction is very modest:
there was a warrant out for his arrest for something sexual, nasty sexual. The consensus was confusing. He had raped someone, or he had not and the charges were trumped up. He was a free speech hero or international threat or both and either being prosecuted for that or a pervert. Point is, he shopped around and got asylum. At present his residence is a compquipped closet in the Russian embassy in Iceland.
Clearly this isn’t Julian Assange – but it’s Julian Assange, and no one else, that it is not. The freedom to invent can’t be reclaimed so easily once it has been renounced. In particular, Balk’s instigation of skulduggery in an attempt to snatch the draft of the memoir is even less plausible than it would be if the character was grown from seed instead of being grafted onto the stock of a person who already exists.
The oddities of Principal’s voice, as recorded by his ghostwriter, go beyond the preference for ‘we’ over ‘I’. It’s no news that those who engage primarily with logic-processing perceive the world and express themselves differently from civilians (Principal’s word for us is ‘rectards’). Shortly after his bar mitzvah Principal devised a symbolic language with which to communicate with his parents (he wanted them to respond using the same medium). The letter W was the symbol he chose for himself: rotated through various degrees it referred to his relationship with each parent, subdivided it denoted time (six subdivisions on each leg of the W indicating an hour, so that each W represented a day), with auxiliary markers allowing the notation of the relevant point on various continuums such as happy/sad, sleepy/wakeful, hungry/thirsty, well/unwell. Principal’s early adventures in coding were an attempt to induce the primitive computer programs of the period (the mid-1980s) to accept the ‘convoluted hierarchies’ of this new language.
The expectation is that Principal is enclosed in his own perceptions, as short on ‘folk psychology’ (social awareness) as he is long on ‘folk physics’ (the understanding of objects and systems), and this is true, to some extent: ‘If then else and else if then’ could pass for small talk only in a very nerdy gathering. But Principal’s idiolect is rich and fascinating. The first sentence in Book of Numbers that calls for rereading, not in an effort to extract its sense but for savouring purposes, is a statement of Principal’s, 200 pages in: ‘Computer scientists make good husbands for polyamorous increasingly lesbian feminists because of how functional they are, how booley, steady and quiet as like fans.’ That’s his father he’s talking about, though he uses the phrase ‘D-Unit’.
Principal introduces figurative language with the unvarying phrase ‘as like’, which at first seems to signal a difficulty in modelling the non-literal but soon becomes an almost endearing mannerism. He can put together a descriptive passage that is atmospheric and even witty: ‘The linoleum was stripped. In the kitchen was a spork/knife, soysauce. The fridge was not plugged in. The efficiency tag was still on the range. The bathroom had just gone paperless. The bedroom was so unfurnished it did not even have a computer.’ He can characterise a group with cryptic elegance: ‘All the candidates were presented as like Hogwarts alumni, veterans of Gondor and Gandalf the Whites, but that was just sheer cloakery … Some had intense lanthanide reserves of experience, others just the faintest lilypulse of texpertise.’ By the time he describes an access road that ‘wandered toward the freeway again, in that stunned and desperate way a dying coyote approaches a dumpster’ it seems silly to pretend that his sensibility is impaired or unliterary. This person might need an editor but hardly a ghostwriter.
The consideration of the mystical aspect of computing suggested by the book’s title seems relatively underpowered in its Jewish applications (‘The Torah, like a computer’s memory, is divided into compartments’), though at one point there’s a letter reproduced in which a rabbi answers a query about what the orthodox procedure should be regarding the deletion of the Name of God from computer files: ‘the proscription against destroying the Name pertains exclusively to physical scripture, to writing by hand (though as dot matrix printer ink impregnates the paper, printed copies must still be interred).’ But Book of Numbers is ecumenical in its way, and even Islam gets a look in, with a reference to ‘the Kaaba, that brute granite tabernacle that holds paradise inside it and grants wisdom to all – in its big black squareness it even looked like a datacenter.’ But it’s Hinduism and Buddhism that show the greatest affinity with the underlying virtuality of reality:
The world of email is the world of attachment, the world of sites is the world of design, the speaker is speaking, the monitor is monitoring, screens impede and cannot be lifted.
A peasant, out ploughing with his ox, died, and was born again, but online. That was his world. He did not know anything else, or have any memories of any existences prior. But this is the world in which all the peasants around you live currently. They are living online, but they think it is offline. They will wander unsettled until they are taken offline again. But even this will be just another design, or attachment.
These words are spoken by a Zen master whom Principal meets when, at a low ebb (‘Dire, our condition was dire’), he tries to reconnect with a sense of the sacred. He discovers Tetsugen Kenneth Classman holding court in a dilapidated California synagogue. Seeking a rabbi, he finds a roshi instead, is fascinated – and goes to Japan, on retreat. It’s the first time he has left the US. He isn’t exactly used to being in nature: ‘Transmissions lost efficacy with spatial gain. Information over distance weakened as like a voice, an echo. All that buffered us was green.’
The Hinduism strand of the book is provided by Moe, an inspired Indian engineer crucial to the early success of Tetration but always treated as inferior, except by Principal. While Principal is the product of ‘physics homework, papiermâché models of meiosis, mitosis, we set magnesium on fire’, Moe (Muwekma Ohlone) is a survivor, ‘siblings stillborn and dead in childhood, parents survived only by him and their tapeworms’. Moe is a living reminder of the outsourced squalor of even the most clean-seeming business, the ethics that need to seem wholesome only at the point of sale, for the benefit of people who will never visit the site of production.
One of the high points of this successful section of the novel is a scene in which Principal and Moe, intoxicated with technical accomplishment and a windfall at poker, visit a strip club: ‘The martinis were watery and on the cutting, the bleeding edge of expensive, but we drank them and were crashing, we were core failure crashing.’ Then they go on the rampage through a suburban neighbourhood using their new invention, a universal remote: ‘Moe messed with one guy in a groundfloor unit by flipping his Indiana Jones to either softcore porn or a nature show about the beach and how undressed a girl had to be to enjoy it … Moe pressed again, and it was either softcore again or just a show about the harmful effects of pederasty on coral.’ The exhilaration is a rarity in the book, as is the solid construction of the scene, which ends with an acknowledgment of the limits of technology, since ‘the moon could not be raised and the sun could not be lowered and the night could not be rewound and the day could not be fastforwarded.’
It has become a truism recently to say that novelists whose characters don’t spend large parts of their time texting, blogging or updating their profiles on social media are writing historical fiction whether they know it or not. Book of Numbers is in its way a historical novel, about the emerging dominance of those technologies, but it hardly stints itself on web postings and emails, some of them so lengthy that they’re longer than most of the letters written in the days when people wrote such things. Finding himself treated more as a slave than a collaborator, Moe gets his revenge with a mammoth post of apocalyptic Hinduism, which is magnificent as rhetoric but rhetoric just the same:
the four castes were everything and at the top was hard engineer, below that soft engineer, below that the users, and beyond that at the very bottom the untouchable. The hard engineers the bodies made, which allowed the soft engineers to put their minds into them and the users to operate them and the untouchables had no electricity and were pariah.
If you do write about the new mediated state of being, a lot of the time you are describing people making keystrokes. This is realistic in its way, with the keystrokes that produced WikiLeaks echoing round the world, but it isn’t dramatic. The two most startling incidents in Book of Numbers involve what is essentially the same scenario, the delivery by courier of something that hasn’t been ordered. The internet may have opened up the world, but it has closed it down at the same time.
After Principal stops talking, on page 417, with the bald statement, ‘Basically at that point it ends,’ the novel has no reason to continue, and reverts to its earlier miscellaneousness and drift. Principal is funnier than ‘Joshua Cohen’, a better writer, has more interesting ethics – and yes, the same brain put down both sets of words, which is a tribute to his abilities, but he has also shackled a fine invention to an interminable display of self-regard, which is an indictment of his judgment. Joshua Cohen, the one without the quotation marks, seems to have no idea how to structure a long novel. The last quarter of Book of Numbers, like the first, is full of material on the level of a moderately cogent blog. There are cute throwaway observations (‘Worst thing about Europe is that you have to pay for matches’) and digressions on the origin of the Qwerty keyboard or the history of ruled notebooks. The sentence ‘Basically at that point it ends’ returns for an encore, and this time fulfils its promise, but not before ‘Joshua Cohen’ says, in an email to an old friend, ‘It’s not like either of us have finished every single book we’ve ever reviewed,’ in what is either an admission of defeat or one last gesture of defiance.