- An Essential One
Penguin Random House
592 Pages; Print, $28.00
To be blunt, whether one considers Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers to be a good novel or not is completely beside the point. Because its subject matter is extremely topical, its author a rising literary star, and perhaps most important of all, the novel only one among a handful of recently published, long-form works that take an encyclopedic approach to their subjects, I will provide various reasons throughout this review for why it’s so deserving of critical attention and theoretical examination. For while Book of Numbers may not be conventionally “good,” one can’t but help recognize it as—if not the novel of our time—then perhaps the novel that periodically arrives just in time to reset our collective assumptions about what fiction can and should do.
All to say that on a purely aesthetic level, Book of Numbers is deeply flawed. It’s at times ponderous, convoluted, formulaic, reactionary in its gender politics, and well, so downright “Millennial” in the surety of its own importance that at moments it truly becomes a slog to get through. Its plot concerns the plight of a failed author named Joshua Cohen (hereinafter referred to as “Cohen,” to distinguish him from the quite successful author of the same name, who hereinafter will be referred to as “JC”), who has been hired to write the memoirs of another Joshua Cohen (hereinafter referred to in both this review and the novel as “Principal”), billionaire founder of Tetration.com. A web company that grew from a humble search engine into a multibillion dollar enterprise of apps, online messaging services, phones and handheld devices, etc.—Tetration’s resemblance on the part of Cohen’s creation to a certain other tech company is, to be sure, purely incidental…That said, Principal’s memoirs slowly turn confessional, and Cohen finds himself in sole possession of evidence that Tetration has been secretly back-channeling all of its user information to the US Government. What follows then is that Cohen finds himself imbricated in a series of geo-political, global capitalist intrigues, and once Principal disappears, Cohen is left poor and alone, with no way to escape his situation.
Yet, although carefully plotted—there are numerous conspiracies, betrayals, unintended complications, and personal revelations of all sorts here—Numbers is not really a plot-or character-driven work. In fact, most of the novel’s characters border on cliché. For example, alcoholic, destitute, porn-obsessed, soon-to-be-divorced Cohen is about as clichéd a portrayal of writer as there ever has been; Principal is awkward, socially inept, spiritually dubious, and potentially autistic; the “ethnic” characters are each an amalgamation of cultural stereotypes so numerous that they’re borderline offensive; and Cohen’s estranged wife Rachel is a one-dimensional, vapid corporate apparatchik bent on revenge (I should also add that in such a sophisticated work, all the female characters are so lacking in agency that it makes one wonder if portions of the novel weren’t written as a form of wish fulfillment, or perhaps to satisfy some sort of vendetta). Nonetheless, it’s thus fair to say that Numbers is less an engaging novel about plot and characters than it is more a novel engaged with topics and ideas. The people, places, and things in the work are merely simulacra, a false pretense so that JC can simultaneously present both mimesis and exegesis of his one true subject: what it means to be “real” in a virtually-connected, digital age.
The novel begins with the phrase, “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands.” Putting aside the fact that it’s impossible to hold a fictional character, what’s more important to notice is that the opening lines of the novel call attention to the physicality, the actual weight and heft of books, and contrasts the tangible presence of printed text with the more ephemeral presence of words scrolling by on a screen. What follows over the next...