A writer’s effort to prepare a biography of a Google-like company’s founder sits at the core of this smart, choppy novel that's trying to take on technology, creativity, and much else.
In a couple hundred pages fewer than 2010’s mammoth Witz, Cohen (Four New Messages, 2012, etc.) presents a writer named Joshua Cohen whose last novel fared poorly because it came out on Sept. 11, 2001. Ten years later, the fictional writer is offered the job of writing “the memoir of the Joshua Cohen I’m always mistaken for,” the “genius googolionaire” creator of the Internet-search firm Tetration.com. Long stretches rich in high-tech lingo entail the Web genius describing his growing up, how the company got going, and how success affected the initial team, particularly the enigmatic Moe, who made searching profitable and then disappeared. The villain—whose complicity with the government raises echoes of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange—is the unsubtly named Tetration president, Kori Dienerowitz (with the likely laugh that the real writer may have made little dinero on Witz). The first fictional Cohen’s rocky marriage allows for fun pokes at bad blogs (his wife’s) and sloppy emails (her boyfriend’s). The real Cohen riffs impressively on countless Web-related matters, from chaos to code to venture capital to Y2K and the woes of single-minded work: “we had ringworm, shingles, scabies, and mule lymphangitis…circadian rhythm disorder, tendonitis.” The corollary for common readers could be frustration at the flood of tech terms, shorthand, and slang. It’s comparable on both counts to William Gaddis’ comic dissection of postwar finance in JR.
Like Gaddis, Cohen also recognizes the laughs and peril at this technologically challenging stage of the human comedy and its new questions about what people are searching for, how the results may affect them, and what it all may cost.