The Book of Numbers
By Joshua Cohen
Random House, 592 pages, $28
‘This will kill that.” As the medieval archdeacon Claude Frollo in Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” speaks this prophecy of obsolescence, he points to a printed book and then a cathedral. Mass literacy, Hugo implies, eroded authoritarian Catholicism and replaced massive, medieval edifices with portable, individual novels. But today, it is the sustained, single-author novel that looks like the bulky, endangered species when compared to sleek, pocketable smartphones with their tweets and hyperlinks.
In “Notre Dame,” Frollo was predicting the novel’s, and thus Hugo’s own, bittersweet triumph. But for Joshua Cohen, whose new novel “The Book of Numbers” takes the Internet as its subject, “this will kill that” is not a promise but a crisis. Like a silent movie about talkies, or a radio show about television, Cohen’s novel implicitly suggests the coming demise of the genre.
The crisis is evident from the novel’s beginning. The protagonist, conveniently also named Joshua Cohen, wrote his first novel about his mother’s memories of the Holocaust. Published on September 11, 2001, the book flopped, its remembered old-world tragedy overwhelmed by the fresh, contemporary pain of 9/11. After a decade of low-end copywriting and a failed marriage, he is approached to ghostwrite the memoirs of a tech mogul, conveniently also named Joshua Cohen. This Cohen is a mathematical prodigy who created an enormous, Google-esque search engine called Tetration. His people offer the struggling novelist fabulous money and stipulate nuclear-code levels of secrecy. Tagging along with his subject, the ghostwriter leaves his squalid Queens apartment. He wanders through London, Paris and Berlin, as well as exotic subcultures like Abu Dhabi and San Francisco, both dominated by youthful male plutocrats.
Much like a search engine, “The Book of Numbers” aims to catalogue, collating snapshots from a dozen places, placing cultural detritus next to geopolitics. The ghostwriter’s ex-wife’s blog posts and her new boyfriend’s emails, all lazily spelled, jockey alongside a plot about the government’s exploitation of Tetration to spy on its citizens. The novel closes at a massive, international publisher’s fair, and it opens with parallel translations of a Numbers passage from the classic King James and the clunkier Tetration (“In the number of days you searched the land 40 days the day to the year the day to the year you will support your poverty/ violation 40 years and you will know my opposition/ pretext”). The basic question seems to be: What has happened to writing? What to make of the massive, constantly shifting and growing book of zeroes and ones called the Internet?
In its journeys through a cultural wilderness, Cohen’s novel resembles the biblical Book of Numbers. Also like the Pentateuchal original, some parts are very dull. The bulk and center of the book is the life story of the technologist Cohen and a history of Tetration. The story is told partially through the writer’s first draft, complete with strikethrough deletions and notes for revision, and partially through a transcript of his interviews with his subject, episodic pericopes that might each easily begin, “And Joshua Cohen spoke to Joshua Cohen, saying.”
The interviewed Cohen’s voice reads as didactically as God’s does delineating the sacrifices for specific holidays. As a child, he invented his own, hyper-logical language and imposed it on his parents. He still speaks in obstinately straightforward declarative sentences and clipped, verb-less noun phrases, and he insists on his own neologisms, most annoyingly using “as like” where pre-Singularity mortals would use one or the other. The entrepreneur Cohen is prone to abstract pronouncements about, say, how the web differs from the Internet, or what makes search algorithms difficult, and he frequently includes gory, technical details to substantiate his point. The resulting text might say something about computer engineers’ aesthetic failings, or perhaps their narcissistic resistance to social norms. Regardless, the style also makes a few hundred pages read like 40 years in the desert.
While the novel seems deeply attached to diaspora and wandering, its best segments are rooted in New York. There, the caricatures are fine embellishments on life, especially Aaron, a cynical, sweet literary agent who represents a dying culture of Jewish intellectualism. But outside the promised land of the five boroughs, we encounter mainly stereotypes. The tech titan’s birthday party is supposed to skewer the superficiality, credulity, and progressive trendiness of Palo Alto, California. “For dessert,” the writer is told, “you’ll be having the birthday cake, which is gluten-free, the candles are sustainable beeswax,” in one of an overlong series of elaborations on Alvy Singer’s culture shock in “Annie Hall,” or just unfunny jokes from “Portlandia.”
Worse is the protagonist’s creepy obsession with an Arab woman. After he improbably rescues her from an abusive husband in a hotel elevator, they sleep together. He buys her luxury clothing with his ex-wife’s credit card; later he stalks her extended family in Germany. The whole episode is surely intended ironically, but the woman is nonetheless an exoticized, voiceless oriental. The novel also treats other Emiratis one-dimensionally, and the whole plot-strand seems bloated and bizarre.
Randomness, thin parody, and a lack of proportion are the usual dangers of the technological parody. Even the master of this subgenre, Thomas Pynchon, occasionally writes a flat anecdote, recycles a caricature, or bores us with the blueprints for an integrating accelerometer. Indeed, there are portions of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” which arguably founded the genre, that encourage skimming.
It would thus be a mistake to dismiss “The Book of Numbers” for its infelicities. In fact, books like Cohen’s develop a promising subcurrent in American Jewish fiction. As the vein of Holocaust and immigrant novels dries, the smarter writers turn elsewhere. They reject the realistic style and choose focuses other than familial history, identity plots, or coming-of-age stories. There are, after all, only so many novels to be written about weddings and bar mitzvahs in Newark and Short Hills, New Jersey.
Some writers, like Ben Marcus in “The Flame Alphabet,” tap into a kabbalistic undercurrent, promising mysteries about writing and, if not God, at least something more sublime than the suburbs. Others, like Gary Shteyngart in “Super Sad True Love Story,” write eulogies to New York nebbishes besieged by finance and superficial gadgets. Novels like these take Jewishness less as an ethnicity than as a symptom of a deeper question, though of course they disagree on what that question is. “The Book of Numbers” tackles both the secrets of language and the collapse of a literary culture and thus adds, albeit with mixed success, to this genre. It thus promises that, whatever the other casualties of the Internet might be, the Jewish novel may yet survive.
Raphael Magarik studies English and Jewish literature at the University of California, Berkeley.