The core story of Book of Numbers is of two different characters named Joshua Cohen: one a struggling writer and one a beyond-eccentric billionaire tech genius.
The larger aim of Cohen’s work—and the reason for the book’s sprawl, with no digression too minor to explore—is a State of the Modern World, an attempt to reconcile the human history and traditions that stretch across thousands of years with the on-demand, hyper-connectivity of our current online lives. The notions of searching and finding, as they’ve transformed from an ancient religious ideal to the rote, keyword-typed-in-a-box meaning of today, seem especially troubling to Cohen.
The novel opens with the line, “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands.” It comes from the perspective of the narrator Cohen, but it’s no accident that the author Cohen places his most provocative line at the top of his work.
Cohen the narrator is a writer, a novelist whose long-researched and potential masterpiece about his mother escaping the Nazis in World War II Poland was forgotten the day after it appeared, the world’s attention grabbed by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The narrator’s good friend then goes on to publish a bestseller tracking a hijacker’s route and writing from the battlefields of Afghanistan, a source of unending jealousy.
Then a job offer comes, and Cohen the narrator is given the top-secret task of ghostwriting the biography of another Joshua Cohen, founder of the ubiquitous tech/search company Tetration. In the narrator’s words, “The man whose business has ruined my business, whose pleasure has ruined my pleasure, whose name has obliviated my own.”
First it’s off to Silicon Valley for narrator Cohen to meet the Principal (as he terms his biography subject), but also for the author Cohen to skewer the contradictory ethos of the industry: “Power masquerading as responsibility, stewardship. Excess but slim, trim. Spiritual emaciation in good citizen costume. Wastefulness spun as ethical consumption.”
Amid the fauxgrammers and brogammers, and at least one “pornstached chillionaire,” Cohen the narrator begins his work, anything but enthusiastically. “Point is, we’re all made differently of the same ones and zeroes—the ones our fortunes, the zeroes our voids, our blacker lacking places.”
The biography-in-progress then takes up the novel’s bloated middle chapter (0, sandwiched between chapters both titled 1), a stylistic digression as well as too many narrative ones to count.
Cohen needs the story of the Principal to forge into the novel’s philosophical territory regarding technology, connectivity and the intertwined notions of searching and finding. He also needs the biography assignment to give the narrator Cohen his current purpose. And yet Book of Numbers flails wildly in that lengthy middle section, failing to serve Cohen’s needs on both accounts. It’s bogged down by tech-speak (techsperanto, to borrow a term from the book), filled with digressions and structurally aggravating as Cohen alternates between raw transcription and first-draft style, complete with strike-through text and parenthetical asides from the narrator Cohen (accurately calling sentences lazy, ridiculous and FUCKING REPETITITITIOUS.)
Even without the section’s annoyances, mileage will vary for readers on how interesting they find the fictional backstory of something they take utterly for granted: the rise of the web search. The Stanford roots, the burst of an idea, the by-the-bootstraps nature of a company formed out of a garage (a second-story condo/apartment in this case) is already the narrative of tech titans like Microsoft and Google, and Tetration isn’t appreciably different. Until, after all the meandering, the chapter delivers its payoff, injecting a welcome intrigue to the plot.
Cohen’s strengths are myriad. His prose can be amazing, at times his dense wordiness achieving a certain magic all its own. He commands his subject matter, from tech to religion, from history to art. But for every passage that dazzles the reader, there is one that seems like a pointless slog. There will almost certainly be a Cohen book to recommend wholeheartedly to all readers. But for all its intelligence and insight into our tech-dominated lives, Book of Numbers isn’t it.