A latecomer to writing fiction, I’m always on the envious lookout for American novelists whose first books come fulsomely formed in their youth: prodigious works such as William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, Thomas Pynchon’s V., Richard Powers’s Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, William Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, three published before their authors were thirty, all before thirty-five. Joshua Cohen began in 2007 with Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, when he was twenty-seven. Now — at thirty-five — Cohen has published two prodigious novels: Witz (2010), an 817-page mock epic about the last Jew in the world, and his new release, Book of Numbers, a 580-page novel about the founder of “Tetration,” an Internet search company that resembles Google.
The novels of the earlier prodigies above were stuffed with specialized, often technical knowledge, were non-linear in form, and disparate in styles, often more like strange systems of information than traditional narratives. The books asked readers to perform searches: to comb through heterogeneous materials and find connections between historical or scientific information and personal experience. The most recent of the earlier five, House of Leaves (2000), is the most directly influenced by information processing: Danielewski’s inclusion of visual materials and an index make the book a print simulacrum of a searchable hypertext. Book of Numbers is the next generation of the systems novel, for Cohen combines prodigious knowledge and formal disruption to explicitly treat math prodigies who developed the hardware and software to manage massive information — and then surveil the wetware of private lives.
Joshua Cohen, the forty-year-old founder of Tetration and fourteenth-richest man in the world, hires a failed almost-forty novelist, also named Joshua Cohen, to ghostwrite his autobiography. Book of Numbers is a combination biography of the founder and autobiography of the ghost, structured as a hard-drive collection of documents: interview transcripts, formulas, programming code, blog posts by the ghost’s estranged wife, emails by her current lover and the ghost’s agent, questionable first-person recollections, photos of archaic female forms, fabricated epigraphs, texts that have been crossed through, and one crucial footnote that may deconstruct the whole kludged assemblage.
On the novel’s first page, the ghost says that “there’s nothing worse than description. . . . No, characterization is worse. No, dialogue is.” Not a very welcoming way to start a book. But the ghost soon elicits sympathy: because his novel about the Holocaust was published on 9/11/2001, it flopped. Since then he has been writing book reviews (like author Cohen, a staff reviewer at Harper’s) and doing anonymous hack work — travel pieces, restaurant reviews, and corporate speeches — while being supported by his wife. In the novel’s present of 2011, she is seeing another man while writing a blog revealing the ghost’s many flaws.
Back in 2004, the ghost caught a break from a “Cohencidence” [Witz, pg. 407] when asked to interview the celebrity who shares his name, but the piece was killed because it wasn’t puffery. Now the founder remembers that interview (which resembles one that the real-life Joshua Cohen did with Slavoj Žižek) and offers to pay a huge amount of money to the ghost if he’ll write a quick-and-dirty tell-all autobiography. Ghost Cohen says “readable books” must have their research “wrapped like mummies, in the purest and softest verbiage, which both preserves them and makes them presentable.” Author Cohen uses about a hundred pages of soft verbiage to establish human interest in his narrator, but I found in these pages to be familiar stuff from — or parody of — too numerous “confessional” novels by frustrated New York City writers.
Harder and much more interesting verbiage begins once the setting moves from New York and Palo Alto to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where the two Cohens stay in luxury hotels. Here the founder, whom the ghost calls “Principal,” narrates his life. His father, Abraham, helped create the personal computer; Principal was a math prodigy who went to Stanford in 1989 but didn’t attend classes; Principal and two computer science whizzes created a marginally profitable list of websites and then went on to invent the algorithm for Tetration (which refers, like googolplex, to almost impossibly large numbers and, in this novel about Jewish protagonists, may allude to the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters transliterated as Yahweh). Tetration needed venture capital, and then an executive — Kori Dienerowitz — to manage the three prodigies, who were joined by a slightly older “computing genius” from India — Muwekma Ohlone, or “Moe” — who added to the search algorithm “reversibility,” the ability to store information about the searcher, leading to government surveillance and entrapment of Tetration users. Dying of cancer, Principal has become an ascetic Buddhist with eccentricities like those of Howard Hughes. But Principal wants to publish his autobiography to cleanse his soul, punish those inside the company who betrayed his vision, and expose NSA-type snooping with which Tetration cooperated.
Cohen’s amalgam of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the less publicly known founders of Google seems informed and authentic, perhaps because the author gives Principal an authoritative and sometimes authoritarian voice. He uses the royal (or corporate) “we” when talking about himself, has little use for transitions or his ghost’s questions, carries a prodigious memory, and spools out speech thick with scientific terminology and what the ghost calls “techsperanto,” neologisms such as “rectard,” “quadlingual,” and “comptrasted.” Principal has conflicts with his colleagues, but the arguments are about ideas and rarely personal, for, unlike his ghost, whose life is full of personal problems, Principal back then had little time for or interest in the quotidian. Occasionally impenetrable, Principal’s discourse is a remarkable tour de force for a literary novelist.
Part 3 (entitled “1” again following Parts 1 and 2, to highlight the “ones and zeroes” of code) returns to the softer verbiage of the ghost, now separated from Principal, impoverished in Germany, forbidden online access to protect secrecy, and trying to work on the contracted book. There are distractions and complications. He searches in Vienna for a young Omani woman whom he rescued from spousal abuse in Dubai. He reports a threat from a Julian Assange figure — Thor Ang Balk of “b-Leaks” — or maybe from his rogue assistant Anders Maleksen, who wants to leak the information the ghost has before he can publish it in a book. The ghost’s agent dies of a heart attack, endangering payment for the book, and the ghost’s estranged wife comes back into the picture via her blog, with a story about a betrayal he had not admitted earlier. The ghost, along with the reader, wonders what happened to Principal. These multiple plot points seem to be the author’s reward for those literary readers who may have struggled through Principal’s math-heavy history of Tetration. Or these plot developments could have been invented by the ghostwriter, to make his combination biography/autobiography salable to a publisher if Principal’s book is anticipated by leaks. In a work about contemporaries’ unwillingness or inability to keep secrets, narrator Cohen may have “secretly” composed a fiction within author Cohen’s novel.
The final words of Witz are that being a Cohen “is steady work.” Book of Numbers employs three different Joshua Cohens and links them by betrayal. The ghost’s purely motivated Holocaust novel is betrayed by circumstances. The ghost and his wife lose faith in another. The founder allows his pure mathematics to be betrayed for profit and for governmental cooperation: he is betrayed by his colleagues and, perhaps, his biographer. Author Cohen creates initial expectations of accessibility that are betrayed in part 2 and then restored in part 3.
And then there’s that much older (read: biblical) Joshua. In the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers, Yahweh feels betrayed by the Israelites who He has delivered from Egypt. He continually punishes them in the wilderness, while denying entry into the Promised Land to Moses, the founder of the code. The spies who came back from the Promised Land with a positive report, Joshua and Caleb (the name given to a journalist turned fiction writer in the novel), are honored by Yahweh, and Joshua leads the Israelites into Canaan. Author Joshua Cohen reverses the biblical Joshua. Here, Cohen is the spy in Silicon Valley who shows it’s not all milk and honey. Perhaps in a decade or so, yet another Joshua may emerge from a library to claims there’s an encrypted relation between Book of Numbers and the Kabbalah, where gematria turns letters into numbers, and Cohen’s novel will be “betrayed” by its interpreter. Or perhaps not.
Prodigies can be abrasive. Ghost Cohen’s and author Cohen’s first words are, “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off.” (Danielewski’s opening sentence in House of Leaves is, “This is not for you.”) But Book of Numbers challenges readers who prefer what Don DeLillo has called “around-the-house-and-in-the-yard fiction.” This novel is for you if you love, as I do, moral complexities that an author scales up and out from personal life into systemic worlds, from individual identity and marital issues to politics, history, and religion — before looping back down again to show the effects of encompassing systems on the personal. The following passage from one of Principal’s transcribed interviews illustrates his limited moral concerns, as well as his quirky style. Cohen the interviewer has asked Principal about Tetration’s “censorship of nonillegal sites.” Principal replies:
If we experienced guilt it was not from violating any ethics or morals but the magnitude of the second eigenvalue. Tetrate it. Do not. Deploying emotions without matrices distressed us. Human intervention was the crime. Lack of system was the crime. This is all about our eternal failure to have deved a viable semantic algy that translates, interprets, and reads between the lines to appreciate intent.
“Eigenvalue” has to do with the number of variables. “Deved” and “algy” are short for “developed” and “algorithm.” “Tetrate” means “search.” Only later does Principal admit that it’s not the intent of a site’s creator that matters but the intent of Big Government’s search of the sites that the Big Data of Tetration can identify. Principal failed to develop the algy that “reads between the lines,” but author Cohen employs an archaic information system — the novel — that trains readers to do just that and to make subtle moral judgments about loyalty and betrayal, purity and profit. Judgments that require thinking beyond the childish law of Google: “Don’t be evil.”
In Cohen’s previous book, Four New Messages (several of which are about the Internet), he has a New York novelist say that in an earlier time people “wrote excessive books about excess that were never excessively read.” These writers include some of “my” prodigies. Readers who resist or even resent prodigious novels may find Book of Numbers excessive in its details about an artist’s failure and a mathematician’s success; in its digressions on mummies and mommies; in its geek wordplay and comic set pieces that include gibbering celebrities at a cocktail party in Palo Alto, pranks perpetrated by start-up boy geniuses, and an absurd political argument with a prince in Dubai. But behind the extravagances here, as in the even more manically prodigious and stylistically hyperwrought Witz, there is a caustic earnestness that pushes Cohen to exceed literary conventions of proportion and propriety to represent what he sees as an excess of access.
In both our culture and in the novel, personal information is willingly made public, and accessible to corporations and governments seeking profit and power. Here is Principal speaking, it appears, for the author:
We want to see and be watched, to listen and be heard, and even a cave needs to be famous if only among caves, or to the fighters it hides, to the fighters who storm it, if only to itself. Our appetite for secrets is our appetite for fame. How many we keep is how much we lack. Then we divulge around the fire. Then we only have others to live for.
Autobiographer Cohen and his over-divulging email correspondents represent the first excess of access. Principal enables the second, and novelist Cohen throws all their voices into what might be called sacrificial realism, the artist giving up accessible artfulness to imitate contemporary ugliness, the Age of Glut and Gluttony co-terminus with the Digital Age.
An early meaning of “prodigy” was “omen” or “warning.” Cohen’s premonition is similar to that of the real Julian Assange, in an essay entitled “Google Is Not What It Seems.” I worry that Book of Numbers may be dismissed as a tardy expose of overreaching corporate power, but Cohen’s achievement — and it is substantial as well as inventive — lies in his now ancient (in tech terms) history of Internet search, and his presentation of local moral compromises in Silicon Valley that, like the butterfly wings of the chaos theory discussed in the novel, caused global illegal consequences. The book-producing character Cohen accuses the screen-displaying Cohen of ruining the codex book, but I believe author Cohen finds in the computer and the Internet his models, as well as his subjects, for the density, range, and scope of his novel. Book of Numbers is a hard-edged next stage forward. Like Joshua Cohen the mathematician, Joshua Cohen the novelist wants to “engineer the ultimate. The connection of connections.”