Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen
The first 200 pages of Book of Numbers are composed of exceptional, kinetic prose. Cohen has a masterful, genius command of language and slang, effortlessly re-appropriating our contemporary lexicon to bend at his every whim. In these relatively simple linguistic gags he reveals an entire generation’s-worth of character and does so in a way that will resonate chillingly well with today’s readers. TVs are “CNNing” at the airport, pasty men are “whiteguying” on the beach. We see “two bedheads blanking their faces above a twotop whose snidely gliding linens suggested footsie, legwork, crotching” while their “pdas mated vibrationally amid cutleries.” As Cohen hyperactively includes themes of Judaism and his new geographic proximity to the Mesopotamian cradle of civilization, it becomes clear that he’s working on some grand, staggeringly erudite statement about how technology is essentially re-wiring language. “The Book of Numbers” is no longer merely Pentateuchal, but an evolving script code.
But then the wheels fall off. Cohen (the author) makes a terrible misstep in the central 400 pages of Book of Numbers and switches to a strange new prose that alternates between struck-through passages of Cohen’s ghostwritten memoir and transcriptions of Principal’s story about the rise of Tetration. Cohen loses all of his pacing amidst a series of poorly planned editorial decisions. We get it: these are transcriptions and Cohen (the ghostwriter) is including everything he recorded, but the execution of this idea renders the bulk of Principal’s story as hackneyed and skimmable. To read Cohen (the ghostwriter)’s notes and edits is curious but detrimental: there’s a moment when Principal, early in the history of his career, discusses the start of Tetration as an index of what few mid-1990s webpages were online at the time. Cohen chimes in to his own text, all-caps and bracketed: “I AM WRITING ABOUT A MAN WHO SOLD A LIST!!!!” What about us? We’re reading about a guy who’s writing about a guy who sold a list? It’s a joke, but ultimately the joke’s on you, novelist: a lot of your readers won’t even make it this far.
Principal’s lengthy story is full of people but is lacking any character, and the excitement rests almost entirely on trying to figure out what real-world cognates Cohen’s riffing on with his “b-Leaks,” “Gopal” computers, and so on. After the tape runs out, we return to Cohen the ghostwriter, but by now we’re exhausted. An ethical intrigue emerges about corporate power and internet accessibility, and readers who were so smitten with Cohen’s grand forays into communication and civilization will have to be satisfied with an ambitionless third act that seems to turn away from all the greatness once previously laid out.
What this all comes down to is that Cohen (the author) is a masterful writer but not a very good novelist. He’s more concerned with getting his ideas out there than he is with how those ideas will be received and processed. The novel’s scenes flow arbitrarily and there’s no benefit to the book’s many digressions, some of which feel so useless that they eat away at the book as a whole. Readers will be tempted to edit and shuffle around sections as they read, and not just strike through passages but excise parts entirely. A disjointed book of ideas is not necessarily a bad thing, but this trait goes entirely against the declaration of intention seen in Cohen’s clunky first lines: “if you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands.” He (or his character) clearly wants page numbers, “paper of pulp, covers of board and cloth, the thread from threadstuff”: but Book of Numbers doesn’t yet deserve that. Forget the tablet; you’d be better off printing out the manuscript, buying a mural-sized cork board, thumbtacks, and a boulder-sized ball of string.
Book of Numbers and its many intellectual digressions may be a “cipher no one cares to crack or can crack,” but its shapeless, general meaning remains remarkably profound. Amidst Principal’s relentless tangents and his skimmable history of Tetration, Cohen (the ghostwriter) butts in with the occasional incredulous interjection. “Am I with you?” He asks. “Because if I am, then I don’t understand.” We don’t really follow either, but repeatedly through Principal’s monologues he assures us (and his interlocutor) that “this will all mean something.” These moments are practically embedded with HTML bold-tags: if something doesn’t make sense, eventually it will mean something, to someone. This is reflective of our culture’s need for references and a neologistic desire to reshape words to show our peers we’re in on a joke or a cultural touchstone (brilliantly exemplified by Cohen’s prose in the better corners of the novel). Principal’s not claiming anything he says will be explained or make sense, but simply mean something. Confusion and frustration will become an experience and a memory with which we try to communicate. And technology, with its all-reaching wingspan, will allow this to happen. In the words of Principal: “The connection is basically the point. Or the motion between two points is the connection. Basically nothing exists except in motion. Nothing exists unless transitive, transactional. Unless it joins. Unless its function is its bridging.” Maybe this book, the one we once tried to grip with both hands, warns of a similar transubstantiation: someone, someday, will “Book of Numbers” all of our experiences, Cohen them up with self-aware, prolix brilliance and half-formed theses until we can’t grip them anymore. And those of us that can make that connection, and see the core of that latent experiential reference will converse, perhaps unknowingly, in a new kind of language.