“I’m obviously the 14th richest person in the world,” novelist and short story writer Joshua Cohen declares of the commonalities between one of his namesake characters in The Book of Numbers—an enigmatic billionaire tech executive—and himself. “That’s why I can afford to write books.”
The fourth novel in the 34-year-old author’s already impressive oeuvre follows in the vein of his earlier work by taking up similar themes from the Old Testament, but this time turning his characteristically speculative angle on the distinction between fact and fiction. In The Book of Numbers, the protagonist Joshua Cohen is hired to ghostwrite the memoir of the aforementioned Cohen—founder of the search engine company known as Tetration—establishing from the outset the author’s intent to obfuscate the line between novel and autobiography. Speaking more seriously of the naming choice, Cohen, who’s also the New Books critic at Harper’s, recalls being motivated by an interest in “seeing the same signifier but attached to a different signified.” He is no stranger to the phenomenon in everyday life: he tells me he is often confronted with the many other individuals with his same name, often by way of misdirected emails.
There are, of course, crucial biographical details that distinguish the author from his characters, Cohen cautions, but the inspirations from his own life are nonetheless inevitable. “There’s a lot of me everywhere, not just in the characters with my name,” he says. Citing forebears like Dostoevsky’s The Double, Nabokov’s Despair, and Poe’s story “William Wilson,” Cohen posits, “any double story is an attempt for a writer to address that fiction-nonfiction divide—to interrogate how life becomes fiction by splitting his or her identity.”
The some 600 pages that ensue chronicle the Cohens’ and company’s far-reaching, often nonsensical episodes, at times darting between time frames and voices so that the reader is hard-pressed to piece together a cohesive, coherent chain of events. The confusion, you can be sure, is intentional.
“Everything in the Bible, until the Book of Numbers, is chronological in order to provide some idea of provenance, or descent,” Cohen explains. “But then all the continuity falls apart,” he says, as the Israelites who are denied entrance to the promised land are forced to wander the desert for 40 years until the entire slave generation dies out. “I love this idea of narrative breakdown,” Cohen admits.
Perhaps the culminating accomplishment of this ambitious, often inscrutable but inarguably groundbreaking novel is Cohen’s application of this literary technique from the Bible to a contemporary context. “I decided, why don’t I superimpose those 40 years of wandering in the desert onto 1971 through 2011, beginning with the invention of personal computing and ending with the hegemony of the Internet,” he says.
He calls it the “tongue-in-cheek joke of the principle of basing the book on another book” that he analogizes “people who grew up with physical books as the enslaved generation, and that this next generation that will inherit the promised land are born after that enslavement to the codex, and that they can live freely and digitally.”
The latter cultural evolution Cohen compares to the story in the biblical Book of Numbers is the aftermath of the (in Cohen’s words) “complex and evolved” postmodernist swing of Western novels in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s which gave way to a commercialization of literature into the 21st century. “People largely gave up on the novel, and the rise of television followed by the rise of computing obviously eroded that audience even further,” he says. For the author, the baby boomer era consolidated the publishing industry, creating “large publishers that really weren’t interested in publishing anything difficult anymore.”
So the inscrutability of the real Cohen’s text, then, is not just a nod to the nonlinearity of a chapter in the Old Testament but also the author’s effort to rescue the novel form itself from mere reductionism in the Internet age. “Style,” Cohen postulates, “is sense.” Here he proposes a mini-dystopian future: “In 10 years, you’ll be able to copy and paste all of my novel into a little box, and the Internet could probably distill my sentences down to their most basic level of meaning.”
But this kind of semantic Google Translate would, he argues, be dangerously banal. “The way something is said is what it means, and to distill something down and create a Cliff’s Notes version of something causes it to lose its skin. You’re just looking at the skeleton; you have none of the real beauty.”
Where does The Book of Numbers fit in his supposed map of the evolution of the novel, then? Cohen is too modest to answer too directly. But my sense is that it’s in the restoration to literature of its casing, of the very art itself of communication. “If I place myself anywhere it’s attempting to resurrect that body and put the flesh back on the skeleton, and to make people feel that the utterance is really inseparable from the meaning,” he says.
As much as The Book of Numbers tries to withstand the structural tides of the new digital monoculture, though, Cohen can’t help but acknowledge that in positive ways, his text is also necessarily a product of its time. “The way a novel is put together mirrors the contemporary technology,” the author says. “This book contains lots of different types of texts and many different stories that are picked up and dropped. I wanted to write a book that returned to the reader very, very strange connections that he or she wouldn’t expect in a more linear, thoroughgoing book.”
The Cohen who begot the two other, quasi-fictional Cohens, blurring not just the definitions of truth and imagination but also geographical and temporal borders as well (from Biblical-era Mount Sinai to modern-day Silicon Valley), sums up The Book of Numbers thus: “This book is supposed to give you these little temptations, as if you know what you’re searching for, and then you’re surprised when it’s not there, and then it comes later. It tries to play with those expectances. I don’t know if that makes any sense.” No, Joshua; none of it does.
Lauren Christensen is an assistant editor at Vanity Fair.