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The Novel in Analog: Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers

Reviewers are having a hard time with Book of Numbers, the latest novel from the incorrigibly ambitious and graphomaniacal Joshua Cohen. Responses have ranged from dismissive to enraptured, with most both at once. The book is “a mess,” writes the New York Times’ usually even-keeled Dwight Garner, but also “more impressive than all but a few novels published so far this decade,” a mashup of David Foster Wallace and Philip Roth. Garner toggles between unvarnished admiration and a more wary posture, as if confronting a dangerous animal. Other reviewers eye Cohen like a young flamethrower on a baseball mound; his talent is spectacular, they suggest, but he prefers to light up the radar gun rather than hone his repertoire of pitches.

Cohen, who at thirty-four has already published half a dozen books, has received this treatment before. Just as critics didn’t seem to know what to do with Witz, his eight-hundred-page novel about the last Jew alive (its title means “joke” in Yiddish), they now dole out extravagant praise for the author (the word “genius” has been batted about) while caviling about the work itself.

It could be that structural conceits are to blame. As Book of Numbers offers up its nested tale of digital doppelgangers—the protagonist is one Joshua Cohen, a middling novelist tasked with ghostwriting the memoir of yet another Joshua Cohen, the mercurial founder of Tetration, a Google-esque tech giant—it risks seeming over-conceived. More likely, though, Book of Numbers confounds because it promises to capture the way human beings live with the Internet, the novel’s lifeblood and executioner.

These reviews reflect an uncertain attitude toward Cohen’s work and the place of books in a culture that, as Wallace once described it, is besieged by “Total Noise.” Connectivity—immersion in the feed, in the total informational surround—has become a cultural value, one reinforced by the post-9/11 fear that disaster may strike at any time. As Cohen writes in Book of Numbers, “On 9/12 everyone went out and bought phones. The mobiles, the cells. Suddenly, to lose touch was to die, and the only prayer left for anyone who felt buried whether under information or debris was for a signal strong enough to let their last words outlive them on voicemail.”

For years now, we’ve said the Internet will both save the novel and eventually condemn it, allowing fiction to be sold, shared, and read anywhere even as it ushers the bound codex of the book into an unceremonious grave. In a marketplace of infinite streaming entertainment, a novel like Cohen’s—which noisily announces itself as a comment on our current techno-sociopolitical moment—can seem like a paradox. Worse, it can seem tame. While sitcoms and prestige TV dramas have become the vessels into which we pour our debates about social justice or mass incarceration, fiction has somehow become a no-go zone for politics.

Perhaps exhausted with hype and backlash cycles that consume themselves, in an endless process of Ouroborosian cannibalism and meta-level posturing, readers have embraced what Jonathan Franzen recently called “a certain kind of really low-key realism”—which happens to be precisely the sort of fiction that Franzen writes, even if his meme-ified literary persona is anything but. (Like the fictional Joshua Cohen, Franzen had a novel come out on 9/11. Cohen’s book tanked; Franzen’s—well.)

Franzen might trace his current popularity, at least in part, to fifteen years ago, when James Wood first described the genre of hysterical realism, thereby giving birth to a new literary mark of shame. In the simplified taxonomies of literary history, the maximalist novels of hysterical realism formed the antipode to the dirty realism of the previous decade. Writers like Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver had turned “spare” into a compliment as they scaled their fictions down to small, painful human dramas. But other writers —Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith—were thinking globally, crafting vast “systems novels” or polyphonic works animated by verbal performativity, flights of the absurd, and exhaustive detail. “The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity,” wrote Wood, and he didn’t mean it kindly.

In a way, Wood’s diagnosis came a few years too soon. By establishing a rubric for a more conservative literary culture, Wood also foregrounded the eventual backlash to later novels like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated or Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love. The two writers, who were married for a time, came to symbolize the particular excesses of hysterical realism—writerly self-indulgence, a twee aesthetic, the appropriation of historical trauma for sentimental ends. When Foer published Tree of Codes—a cutup version of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, Foer’s favorite book and an inspiration to many Jewish writers—it seemed like the fulfillment of a kind of kitsch whose moment had passed. Even so, it’s hard not to see the influence of Wood in the pronouncements of critics who acknowledge Cohen’s talent while holding his work at arm’s length.

Cohen, one senses, would sooner burn a cherished classic than turn it into a novelty art object. He’s railed against Foer, Michael Chabon, and other writers of their generation as being long on romantic sentiment and short on tragedy (itself a kind of realism, since so much of life ends in it). He’s argued that the publishing industry prefers “white boys who write to be liked” and that an MFA is “a degree in servitude,” a quick passage to a lifetime writing safe, conventional fiction to pay off one’s debts. 

This defiance comes through in Book of Numbers, which, even though it operates in the shadow of Wood’s critique, makes a case for the value of precisely the qualities found in some of the hysterical realist works he denigrated (or unfairly lumped together). Cohen’s novel roars with humor, wordplay, and Nabokovian pyrotechnics. It’s self-conscious without being overwrought. 

Cohen has always written with one shoulder turned toward the reader. His reviews for Harper’s are erudite and probing, but they rarely resemble conventional book reviews. They aren’t algorithmic; they don’t end with a thumbs-up/-down recommendation. In his fiction, expansive as it may be, Cohen doesn’t hesitate to work in fragments, to leave out an important detail, knowing that readers should be smart enough to keep up and that too much fiction today is written in a plain, straight-ahead style, leaving nothing in reserve, no room for mystery or (mis-) interpretation. Many of these books—like Franzen’s Freedom or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s pitying self-chronicle—have all the texture and excitement of oatmeal.

As Cohen’s work reminds us, printed books are mostly private pleasures, lonely ones even. Unlike so much media today, they don’t target, watch, or measure us; they don’t flatter us with personalized stories based on accumulated data profiles (not yet, at least). But even as this essentially analog quality has convinced us that novels are doomed to be political dead zones, it has become one of their newfound attractions. “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off,” goes Book of Numbers’ opening line.

If the Internet poses a challenge to the novel, as we believe, it has less to do with how hard it is to represent connectivity than how hell-bent we are on experiencing it. Novels are endangered now not because they can’t describe a smartphone without stumbling (questions of mimesis, of how to depict the world with anything like fidelity, are as old as Plato) but because to read one is to depart from the current social moment—one in which, as Cohen describes it, “privacy [has] become loneliness.”