- 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.
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