A deeper look at a web-based world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Adam Rivett Adam Rivett is a Mel­bourne writer.

Welcome to phase two of the in­ter­net novel. With the online world hav­ing so thor­oughly in­fil­trated the an­ti­quated halls of the novel as to barely merit com­ment, it’s clearly time to go deeper. Con­sider The Book of Num­bers by Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Joshua Co­hen, which may be seen as com­pan­ion piece to Thomas Pyn­chon’s Bleed­ing Edge and Dave Eg­gers’s The Cir­cle: fic­tion writ­ten from in­side the ma­chine. Yet even more than that, The Book of Num­bers feels like one of the first nov­els to truly cap­ture, in its warped lan­guage and ex­haust­ing thor­ough­ness, the way we live now.

This is a tale of three Joshua Co­hens. The first has his name on the book; a Google search can fill in the real-world bi­og­ra­phy. The sec­ond Co­hen, a failed writer, may pass for his cre­ator, on the cre­ator’s most self-pity­ing and washedup night. The third is one of the most pow­er­ful peo­ple in the world: founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Te­tra­tion, the novel’s thinly fic­tion­alised ver- sion of Google. If this al­ready sounds grat­ingly po-mo, con­sider the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of selves as a nec­es­sary part of the book’s cu­ri­ous charm. Shar­ing the same name re­duces each owner to their so­cial sta­tus, their achieve­ments. Let the search en­gines de­cide.

Co­hen II opens the novel well down the rank­ings. He’s at a loose end af­ter the book he’d hoped would lead to fame and renown ended up shar­ing a pub­li­ca­tion date with the fall of New York’s twin tow­ers. Post-9/11 he falls into a dead­en­ing pat­tern of hack work, at his low­est writ­ing fake raves for ho­tel re­view web­sites.

It’s while oc­cu­py­ing the com­par­a­tively high end of town, writ­ing pro­file pieces for print mag­a­zines, that he en­coun­ters his name­sake, who of­fers the scribe a near-ir­re­sistible task: ghost­writ­ing Co­hen III’s memoir. The writer sim­ply has to ask the ques­tions and knock the an­swers into work­able prose. The dic­ta­tion that fol­lows is the novel’s dark heart. For nearly 300 pages, in the first-per­son plu­ral, the tech wiz­ard Co­hen III (Co­hen II dubs him “Prin­ci­pal”, which elim­i­nates rep­e­ti­tion) nar­rates his life, from child­hood to fledg­ling suc­cess to near­world dom­i­na­tion. In a voice that com­bines the orac­u­lar pom­pos­ity of a TED talk with the un­apolo­getic jar­gon of a friend­less IT as­sis­tant, Prin­ci­pal ex­plains not just the se­crets of his suc­cess but how he and his de­vel­op­ers have changed the world, one al­go­rithm at a time.

Co­hen has cre­ated a bril­liant, dense and de­lib­er­ately off-putting voice in Prin­ci­pal. Com­pa­ra­ble works such as Pyn­chon’s Grav­ity’s Rain­bow and David Foster Wal­lace’s In­fi­nite Jest are un­afraid to com­pli­cate their el­e­gance with the less invit­ing lan­guage of maths and science, but rarely has a con­tem­po­rary writer been this will­ing to let his prose be so con­tam­i­nated with the noise and com­pres­sion of mod­ern tech talk. As a vi­sion of how our in­ter­ac­tion with the world has been sub­sumed by the in­ter­net, it’s peer­less. There are down­sides, how­ever. The pro­gram­mers and gu­rus who move through this sec­tion barely register, and there are times when the reader tires of the bil­lion­aire’s grandil­o­quent at­ti­tu­din­is­ing. Per­haps sens­ing this po­ten­tial alien­ation of read­ers, Co­hen has lit­tered the text with struck-through pas­sages, emen­da­tions and notes to him­self (of­ten com­ment­ing on how bor­ing he finds his work). These ad­di­tions not only com­pli­cate his role as amanuensis but at other times par­ody the weary for­mula of bi­og­ra­phy he finds him­self serv­ing.

The dif­fi­culty of the novel’s long mid­dle stretch is starker when com­pared with its book­ends, nar­rated by the schlemiel Co­hen. This voice is a lyri­cal, knotty, vo­cab-blitzed won­der, and a vir­tu­oso per­for­mance. Even more im­pres­sively, it’s ca­pa­ble of great vari­a­tion. While the book’s open­ing 150 pages are daz­zling in their eru­di­tion — one set piece, a lonely walk through a mu­seum mix­ing fam­ily history and ar­chae­ol­ogy, is a high­light — there are times when the mo­tor­mouthed bril­liance of Co­hen II is as tir­ing as Prin­ci­pal’s gas­bag­gery.

The book’s fi­nal sec­tion slightly atones for this, let­ting in other voices via email ex­cerpts and re­veal­ing, be­neath the lin­guis­tic show­man­ship, the fear, re­sent­ment and loss at the heart of this dig­i­tal world. The Book of Num­bers is ex­haust­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing. I laughed fre­quently. I looked up a lot of words on my ever-present smart­phone. At one point I wanted to drop punt this book into the Yarra. It holds all of these con­tra­dic­tory feel­ings, and bal­ances yet more — ele­giac with­out be­ing hec­tor­ing, satiric with­out feel­ing heavy-handed — within its cov­ers. A re­view is short, a book is long. How are you go­ing to con­nect with a for­ever dis­tracted pop­u­lace these days any­way? Short take, mod­er­ate heat: read it.

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