The Original Online

Trapped in the web of Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers.

Illustration by Ethan Rilly.

Illustration by Ethan Rilly

In Joshua Cohen’s new novel, Book of Numbers, a struggling writer named Joshua Cohen is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of Joshua Cohen, a Jobsian tech guru whose vast empire, Tetration, was founded on the invention of search. The writer character Joshua is almost 40, which makes him a little older than his author, though both were born in the pre-digital age—members, as I am too, of the generation that knew tech in its infancy, from that printer paper with the perforated strip down the sides to the “Information Superhighway” to Mosaic and Encarta and chatrooms. All of which now seems inspiringly anarchic, if not downright quaint. Book of Numbers is partly a history of how we got from there to here, and partly a warning about where we’re heading: Tetration is an obvious ringer for Google, with a bit of Apple thrown in, and minus Google’s loopy, good humored facade. After traveling to Palo Alto for some light indoctrination, narrator Joshua Cohen tags along with billionaire Joshua Cohen—helpfully referred to, for comprehension’s sake, as “Principal” throughout—on a tour of Europe and the United Arab Emirates, getting the scoop on Tetration’s murky origins and eventually too on the motives, murkier still, that underlie the reclusive Principal’s decision to talk.

At one point, Cohen has a character claim that, for a novel to work, its personae must be “separated into missing each other and never communicating.” The problem is that in the present of “pdas” (a strangely dated term he keeps on using) and “online,” (which he employs as a noun, as in, “the original online”) in which Cohen’s own novel is set, people are never “plausibly alone”: “Everyone now knew what everyone else was doing, and what everyone else was thinking, and the result was a life of fewer crosspurposes and mixups, of less portent and mystery too.” The narrator says he recognizes the ideas in this rant as being swiped from the New York Review of Books’ website, although in truth it instead parrots a 2012 Granta essay by Toby Litt, which made the basic argument that, these days, Odysseus would just text his wife to say he’d be late and Bloom do his errands on Amazon, thus saving himself the trouble of going around town and saving us the Odyssey and Ulysses both. Litt isn’t the only one to worry that, as what goes on IRL increasingly blurs into what goes on elsewhere (according to the San Diego Supercomputer Center, an average U.S. adult in 2015 is expected to spend about 15.5 hours a day in consort with “digital media,” whatever that means), we’re losing touch with certain things on which the novel used to depend: spoken dialogue (eliminated by texting), ambiguity (by Google search), flânerie (by Google Maps), ennui (by Candy Crush), or the surprise re-emergence of a friend or enemy (by Facebook). It’s true that doubt fades quickly with fact so ready to hand, and with it a kind of imaginative freedom on which some strands of literature used to depend. Chance is a hard sell when tastes and habits are algorithmically predicted in advance. (Customers Who Bought Book of Numbers Also Bought: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon, The Circle by Dave Eggers, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.) It becomes harder not to take a side, or to take risks, when everyone knows the sort of thing that will be looked at, what will be starred, or shared, or thumbs-upped. So whence the contemporary novel, then? What can it give that the Internet can’t? Plenty, of course, is the answer, though to do so it needs to get out of that defensive crouch. 

Here is where Cohen wildly succeeds: There’s nothing remotely defensive about Book of Numbers, or about him as its author. In fact, rather than defending against the incursion of Internet culture on the process of literature-making, Cohen has invited it in for the purpose, it seems, of warning against it. His novel is loud and aggressive.  Narcissistic in its snarl of nested selves, it’s splashy with jargon and slang, fragmentary, unfinished, crude in its racial characterizations, heterogeneous, and hyperactive, with a porny gutter-brain. At 597 sprawling pages it’s also huge, if no great shakes for Cohen, whose 2010 novel Witz was closer to 1,000. Still, Book of Numbers is more like the online world than any book I can think of. (Without, alas, the cats.)

As with the Internet, it’s hard to say what the novel’s “about,” or what its purpose is, or even if it has a moral center. A hyperlinked sense of distraction and refraction is built into the text, in Cohen’s readiness to spin off on tangents from Neolithic goddess figures (there are pictures!) to the semiotic covalences of “buttons” and “knots.” The novel, which incorporates interview transcripts, emails, an incomplete draft of Principal’s autobiography (with crossings-out intact), Joshua’s memoir-in-progress, and the ranting therapy blog of his almost-ex-wife, reflects something of what must have been the circumstances of its own composition, that continual immersion in anything, in everything, one ever wanted to know and a lot that one didn’t that we can hardly now avoid. Here is the readiness of information to which we’ve all grown so used, here is its kudzu-like spread, how it fills a landscape: “The xeriscaped rear descended into the vast gape of a wildlife refuge … originally a religion itself—animism, totemism, dendrolatry—to the indigenous Indians, whom the Spanish called the Costenos, or ‘coastal people,’ but who called themselves Ohlone: Ohlo = ‘western,’ ne = ‘people.’ ” Cohen gleefully snatches at the low-hanging parodic fruit that is Silicon Valley–speak, as at Principal’s birthday party, where Joshua encounters a “pornstached chillionaire and his two brogrammer friends … his coworkers at #Summerize, according to their shirts and shorts and hats” who proceed to say things like “You can’t change the scale without scaling the change,” “this party’s got mad fucking latency,” and “get positivized … the ad rep girls are 8s for def.” 

Despite allowing for literature’s infiltration by tech, yoking it to his plow as it were, Cohen is clearly interested in defending the novel as object, as mass of paper and ink. He sets his terms from the start: “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off,” the first line goes. Joshua Cohen (character) has had the bad fortune to publish his first book—on the good old-fashioned, literarily respectable subject of his Holocaust survivor mother—on Sept. 10, 2001. It fails, of course, and yet he keeps faith with traditional publishing, even while taking on work with the kind of online “content” farms on which many writers now are forced to depend. Joshua still reads paper books—a lot of them. He doesn’t have a “tetheld” (something like an iPad) or a “tetset” (iPhone?), he doesn’t “tetchat” or take “squares,” and claims to quit “tetrating” (googling) one-fifth of the way through the book, even if we can hardly believe the same of his author. He’s not a Luddite, but he’s no technophile either; for much of the novel, he has no Internet access at all, and when he does he’s mostly looking for porn. Which is to say that for a novel so steeped in the ethos of tech, Book of Numbers comes across as highly tech-averse in the end. In fact, Cohen’s narrative makes one wonder if what the novel wants to suggest is that the only way to live with integrity, to be full and truly in possession one’s own human self, is not to live online at all. Or else maybe it wants to muddle the separation between human and inhuman in tech, between off- and online. Then again, it’s not always easy to figure out what Cohen wants to suggest here at all.

Still, throw enough darts and you’re bound to hit something, and Cohen has a whole lot of darts. His sharpest ones are linguistic: He’s a marvelous stylist, with a Pynchonian love of jargon and pun, even if sometimes his embrace of these carries him beyond the limits of comprehension. (“Octalfortied”?) But if the jargon is unlovely, it’s the building blocks of sentences that are rhythmic and propulsive, full of alliteration and rhyme: “Musings about museums, snarks about parks, observations to obelize: two frisbeeists freed from their cubicles—a professorial but perverted uncle emeritus—a Caribbean nanny strollering her employer along the reservoir.” Gravel is like “babyteeth”; welts “pulse like stoplights.” Voice, more than anything, carries the book, callous, intellectual, and excessive. It’s the character Joshua’s voice in theory, and Principal’s throughout the huge middle section, but both are clearly Cohen’s own in fact. Self-aware, hyper-articulate, and continually posturing, he’s seemingly as at home in Hebrew or binary as in his never-plain-English, grabbing at any source of language with a magpie’s glee, to throw it in his nest in a jumble: “Shareware soup, cybersalad of packetsniffed florettes dusted with a terabyte of truffles. Herbes de POP Palmiers. Tarte a l’Terminal et aux apps.” 

Joshua Cohen by Beowulf Sheehan.
Joshua Cohen.

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Perhaps this is a good time to note that I found the book largely unbearable to read. Not because is “difficult”—though it is that, at times, dragging along for hundreds of pages, and then flashing through technically complex terms and processes as it continues to burnish its author’s already-gleaming bona fides—but because it succeeds too well in making distraction and proliferation its game. It grows exhausting in the same manner that the unending tsunami of digital media does—Look here! Look here! Look there! One longs for a prolonged gaze, for a pause in the continually scrolling onslaught. Too, if Cohen is trying to say that this stuff is us, our humanity, I would say his view of humanity’s a little dim: There is here, as online, a great deal of vulgarity and hatefulness to wade through, from Joshua’s blinkered self-pity after 9/11 (“10 Arab Muslims hijacked two airplanes and flew them into the Twin Towers of my Life & Book”) to his unapologetic misogyny and easy racial shorthand (“an Asian, an Arab, and an Indian, all speaking together in questionmarks like white girls”), to the ickier porn stuff. Fine. The character is a druggy, drinky schmuck, heir to plenty of the same from Portnoy on down. But then there’s that highly dubious, blatantly wish-fulfilling sexual encounter with an Omani woman, who Joshua’s “rescued” from spousal abuse (made worse when he gets aroused by the suicide vest he falsely imagines she’s wearing under her abaya). That can’t be pinned on the character. Compare this to, say, Joshua’s talk of “vessile women,” which actually has a literary function.  He seems to find a weird parallel between the women in his life and the Internet—both, in his telling, storage receptacles for the self. An uncomfortable idea as far as gender politics go, maybe, but an interesting one in the context of the book.

The novel’s integrity—like the Internet’s, not incidentally—may be buried in a lot of such muck, but I do think it’s there. As Joshua learns more about Tetration and the dubious future of predictive search, government meddling, and “metadata winnowed to minilife,” a picture emerges of online as an exteriorization of the inner self, something that makes not just one’s own cultural past and personal present but everyone’s at the same time outsourced, public, and searchable. Lured by the promise of self-expression, creativity, and intellectual freedom, we reveal ourselves online through our choices, allowing something as intimate as desire to be predetermined by a corporation, a search engine, a government. The readers are being read. Not just being read, but becoming, in the end, what “they” think we are, whether terrorists, consumers, or reprobates. In a way, of course, writing does the same thing as this sort of online life: making public what is usually private and internal, sharing, over-sharing at times.

“Click until this page wears out,” Joshua writes wearily, obliquely echoing Nabokov’s Humbert. (“Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita. Repeat till the page is full, printer.”) Literature, even that of murderers with fancy prose styles, provokes rather than determines the agency of its readers. Freedom, where it exists in Book of Numbers, is found on edges, places where the grip of online fades: on the beach, in mortality, in secrets, disappearance. And, crucially, in the text itself. Principal’s chief engineer Moe, the Moses of this book of Numbers, is searching for a way to be open to experience, including online experience, without being fully accessible oneself—to have, in other words, an equal amount of input and output. Which is probably what Book of Numbers is aiming at too, as regards its relationship with “online,” using it and being used by it in equal portions. It reveals in the novel form a place where the making-public of literature proves itself safer and more productive than the making-public foisted on us by digital tech: Maybe this is the true Promised Land to which this Joshua wants to lead us. In that there’s something about literature that is freedom, that is choice, however intellectual and seemingly inhuman it’s made. This is something we should remember every day of our lives, as readers—though heaven forbid we should have to get through novels like this one to be so reminded.

Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. Random House.

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