Joshua Cohen’s books are formidable. He is whip-smart and not afraid to show it, so reading his work is like a test to prove if you have A) the vocabulary to hang with him, B) the cultural and historical cachet for his references, and C) the endurance to digest thick stories built with little breathing room. Book of Numbers follows the size and breadth of his earlier novels Witz and Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, though aesthetically and rhythmically it is more akin to his story collection Four Messages, making it a bit more approachable in comparison to those earlier works.
Book of Numbers is built on characters like concentric circles. First there is Cohen himself, the actual person, author of Book of Numbers. Then there is Joshua Cohen the fictional protagonist, who is also an author, a literary academic who has trouble finding a readership when his latest book is released too close to the aftermath of 9/11. There’s one more Joshua Cohen too, this one thankfully referred to not by name but as Principal. If there is an antagonist in the novel (beyond protagonist Cohen’s self-doubt and writer’s block), Principal is it: an internet mogul and country-hopping billionaire with a penchant for disappearing, and for running the other Cohen into the ether.
Book of Numbers starts at the shortfall of protagonist-Cohen’s novel, when his confidence is spiraling. He is avoiding contact with his agent, has difficulty meeting deadlines, and is descending into a depressive and solitary existence. Enter Principal, mega-bucks tech pundit known throughout the world for his creation of Tetration, an advanced search-engine that has grown so enormous and multi-faceted it radiates from nearly every screen. When, through a series of swirling communiques, Principal taps Cohen to ghostwrite his memoirs, and when a surprised and reluctant Cohen accepts, Book of Numbers doubles down.
Cohen accepts the ghostwriting gig because his money is running out, but he also takes the job because he is trying to escape what he is unwilling to accept: his former love Rach has called it quits despite Cohen’s protests, his ex-friend is happily mired in newfound celebrity, and his writing is threatening obscurity. This is how the sinkhole deepens, and how Cohen is grudgingly pressed into Principal’s world, a place he doesn’t wholly understand but one where his words might regain their footing. The job whisks Cohen around the globe while he dives into research, seeking a lens through which to finally see Principal and Tetration, how the company came to be and how Principal thrived, all of it wrapped in firewalls.
I’m not sure how to write about this, not sure whether to still be writing at all—I’ve been trying to screen and block so much out, so many confidences throughout, classified stuff, government stuff, might even get me imprisoned stuff, that it’s become systemic with me, to the point that I find myself trying to withhold on this confession even. Principal’s mouth wired to my ears, his eyes becoming mine, a monitor, a common prompt between us blinking, unblinking, at this sense of having become so irrecordably joined that the only way not to write about him is not to write about myself. I’ll have to spread and type around. Furl and reach between Del and Esc.
Here Book of Numbers splits away from Cohen’s life before Principal to delve fully into the memoir-in-progress, revealing Cohen’s failed attempts at ghostwriting as well transcripts of interviews, recollections of meetings and events, and passages from his continuing effort to write the story of Principal. In this way Book of Numbers gives readers a nice midway handhold in a lengthy and intricate story, a place to reset and reinvest in the multiple Cohens. It’s good evidence of author-Cohen’s continuing development as a writer that he finds ways to make the work accessible without sacrificing his particular style.
“Enough with the book!” and Dad, churning, gathering his strength into swells, threw himself out of his chair and atop me, ripped the book from my hands—a sentence, in the middle of a sentence—and, limping through the froth, threw it to the Atlantic, far out, not far enough out, its pages splayed like an injured pigeon.
One part of Cohen’s approach that may still be troublesome for readers is his vast and variable vocabulary. While a sizeable portion of the novel rides on powerfully articulated language, at times it becomes a linguistic onslaught, making Book of Numbers maybe too much for the casual reader, especially since this novel mixes Cohen’s literary summersaults with technological lingo. But for readers who accept the challenge, their reward is a subtle humor more prolific here than in Cohen’s previous works, a welcome addition to his repertoire:
Miriam—who kept her age vague, halfway between my own and my mother’s—was the one who ran the shop and hired me: straight out of Columbia, straight out of Jersey, a bridge & tunnel struggler with a humanities diploma between my legs but not enough arm to reach the Zohar. She was inflexible with what she paid me an hour ($8 or its equivalent in poetry), but was flexible with hours. She respected my time to write, knew that I wasn’t going to be a clerk all my life (just throughout my 20s), knew that a writer’s training only began, didn’t end, with alphabetical order.
So take Book of Numbers like a dare. It’s a sprawling novel with roots in cultural criticism and a herculean vocab, but the incentive for those who endure is a compelling story of authorship and privacy, some good bouts of humor, and the maneuvers of a savvy writer unafraid to interweave and interpose, to flirt with accessibility while riding into the sink.