A deeper look at a web-based world
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.