“Dust jackets on the wrong spines”: Joshua Cohen on Book of Numbers


Joshua Cohen’s new novel, Book of Numbers, is an essential cultural document about life in the digital age. It concerns the founding of a fictional search engine company, Tetration.com, and the complicated business arrangement struck between one of Tetration’s founders, Joshua Cohen — in the book referred to as Principal– with his ghost biographer, a frustrated writer Joshua Cohen:

Did you mean Joshua Cohen? The genius, googolionaire, Founder and CEO of Tetration.com, as of now datestamped 8/27, timecoded 22:12 Central European Summer Time — hits #1 through #324 for “Joshua Cohen” on tetration.com.

Or Joshua Cohen? The failed novelist, poet, screenwriter, husband and son, pro journalist, speechwriter, and ghostwriter, as of now — datestamed 8/28, timecoded 00:14 Gulf Standard Time — hit #325 “my” highest ranking on Tetration.com.

The Book of Numbers is a challenging novel that moves at varying speeds, constantly shape-shifting and adopting new voices. There are sections that embrace the chattiness of a confessional blog, the sloppy syntax of an unedited email, and the big-picture ruminations that one might expect from a writer like Robert Musil or Don DeLillo. Anyone interested in the sociocultural forces that encourage people to live out loud — i.e., to share ever-larger pieces of their lives with the world, so that such data can be monetized and transformed into corporate profits — should read this book.

Full disclosure: I first met Joshua seven years ago and, like many, I’ve been deeply impressed by his enormous output. Joshua is the author of eight books — four story collections and four novellas — that include Witz (2010), an 817-page novel about the last Jew on earth, and Four New Messages (2012), a collection of short stories about the uncomfortable intersection between online and offline life.

On the occasion of the publication of The Book of Numbers, I asked him to take a few minutes to talk with me about the novel and his inspirations. The following interview was conducted via email. —Christopher Byrd


The Barnes & Noble Review: How did you come to literature — as a reader and as a writer? Were there detours? Were you ever a comic book nerd or a science fiction buff? 

Joshua Cohen: Books were in my family — books were my family. But this isn’t the place to go into the history of the Jews. . . . As for comics — no, never: in my house, we abominated the Image. But as for science fiction, absolutely. In The Book of Numbers, I make Principal’s favorites my own: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Avram Davidson (who also wrote some wonderful crime stories). I’m not sure why I didn’t also mention Dick and Lem, and from among the living: Le Guin, Delaney, Gene Wolfe, and Barry Malzberg.

BNR: I’ve always liked Derrida’s formulation that literature “is the end of the family” or the place where one is absolved of the need for politeness. What does “literature” mean to you?  

JC: I know that line, or a line like that, from an interview with Philip Roth, which I read again, years later, in the book he was quoting from, a memoir by Czesław Miłosz: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” And I seem to remember — I won’t search this up — something similar in a letter from, or to, Freud. And that’s what literature means to me. . . .

BNR: You write, “Another lesson: ‘subject’ and ‘genre’ are distinctions necessary for shelving a book, but necessarily ruinous distinctions for writing a book deserving of shelving.” What’s the state of your bookcases these days?        

JC: Cases? Who do you think I am? Try piles, stacks, heaps, middens. Not just unalphabetized — dealphabetized. Dust jackets on the wrong spines. Paperbacks wetted, wadded, stuck together.

BNR: How promiscuous are you in your aesthetic taste, in general? Aside from books, what gets your neurons hopping?

JC: Vocabulary — words — the fact that our neurons are typically said to “fire,” but now I have your “hop,” and suddenly the skull’s packed again — not with assassins anymore but with rabbits. And I’m as promiscuous as a rabbit ,too, beyond literature: I like music, visual art, junk, and lists. I like filling out strangers’ dating profiles. Smoking OK. Drinking OK. No pets.

BNR: You once told me that Saul Bellow was the only American novelist in recent memory that you wish you could have met. Why?

JC: I’m not sure why I said I would’ve liked to have met him. He doesn’t seem to have been kind, or generous. Maybe I would’ve liked to try and withstand him — to stand beneath him, that is, and stick out whatever education he’d deign to impart. It’s something like when I was a kid, in Israel: the bet I had with a friend regarding which of us could stay in the Dead Sea the longest — which of us could stay underwater the longest, which is difficult with all that salt, because salt just tries to get you floating, to get you out. I forget who won — but I remember who lost: we both did. A small amount of that sea might be good for the complexion, but for the wade we had, we had these stinging blotchy rashes, for weeks.

BNR: When did you begin work on The Book of Numbers?

JC: 2010 or so, in earnest. Between finishing Witz and beginning the last two of my Four New Messages.

BNR: Early in the book, you say, “I’m trying to work in something about the future of identity, something about names linking, or mislinking.” Can you walk me through its initial conception? Was the book born out of a question, an anecdote, an intimation?

JC: It came from being surrounded by Joshua Cohens. Or Joshuas Cohen. From getting their mail — but more, from getting their email. And having to fwd: having to introduce “myself.”

Then, I had this side business, or barely a business, more like a sub−side hobby, liquidating synagogue libraries: Large urban synagogues — whose congregants had died, or aged out to Florida or the Southwest, or just moved with their children and grandchildren to the suburbs — were deaccessioning their collections of both holy and secular books, and I was driving around Jersey in a U-Haul, picking up that stock, trucking it back to my apartment. I donated a few volumes, sold even fewer, wound up keeping most for myself — including a Hebrew copy of the biblical Book of Numbers that, according to its title page stamp, had belonged to a man named Yehoshuah Kohen — Joshua Cohen. This Cohencidence led me to read through the book again, for the first time since my school days, and it was through this rereading that I recovered the desert: the forty years of wandering during which the enslaved generation dies out, to make way for the shiny new youth to inherit the future. I realized, this was the divide I was dealing with — peddling the books I grew up with for nothing online.

BNR: Also early on, you note, “All books have to be researched, but readable books have their research buried.” I was impressed by the reams of technical information regarding the development and refinement of Tetration’s search engine and by your mastery of Silicon Valley lingo, which struck me as fanciful until I read the profile of Marc Andreessen in The New Yorker. What surprised you during the course of your research for the book? Were there any specific areas relating to the maturation of the Internet that were particularly difficult for you to get a handle on? Any archival anecdotes that you would like to share?

JC: Nothing difficult in the conception, a number of things difficult in the execution: how to write clearly about math — about physics — about numbers. How to render not just the ideas but also my characters’ feelings for ideas — and how to render characters constitutionally discomfited by “feelings.” I’m not sure what I was surprised by, at this remove, nor can I much differentiate between material I researched and material I invented. Wait — I’m having a flashback. . . . I remember being taken by the ’60s and ’70s, by the way the American counterculture evolved a worldwide digital consumer culture. That’s a major subject I only grazed in the book.

BNR: There are countless passages in the book that I love, but the one I find most inspiring as a writer is this: “A History of Frankfurt noted only that the hotel was subsequently rebuilt [after World War II] but never addressed how or why it was rebuilt — though perhaps such questions are only for outsiders, or retrospect. Because it seems to me that standing amid the rubble you have a choice. You can rebuild, or you can not rebuild, and if you decide to rebuild then you will rebuild the thing exactly as it was or will you make it new. Either you can go get the exact same masonry and the exact same woods and the semblant rugs and the Aryan Atlas figures that uphold the pediment with your name done up in vermeil, to make as faithful a replica as feasible of what you’ve lost, or else you can just hit reset and find an alternate design — other materials — and maybe not even a hotel . . . the questions of whether to make, or not to make, of whether to remake or make new, are just as germane to literature.” Given that we live in an age far removed from the early and mid-twentieth century where the novel’s cultural primacy was at its high-water mark, what keeps the literary flame burning deep inside of you? What do you want from a new book these days? What sclerotic literary forms, if any, do you think should be chucked overboard?

JC: To start with, chuck no forms. Everything we keep, will keep us. What do I want from a book? Something protean, something always on-the-move-or-make — shape-shifting, semantically-and-syntactically-shifting. There’s that hoariest cliché: over the course of a book, the characters must change — but what about the form, what about style? Why is everything else just assumed to be static? As for what keeps the literary flame burning? I’m guessing it’s oil. That’s why we invade sovereign nations, isn’t it? So that we’ll always have something to write about, or write against?

BNR: David Foster Wallace once said that Nabokov is the father that has to be killed. Are there any paternal figures that you wish to slay?

JC: I’m from Atlantic City. Maybe, Donald Trump?