The Rumpus Interview with Joshua Cohen


In Christianity, the alpha and the omega. In Islam, the first and the last. “Beginnings to romanticize, and endings to dread—I’ll take anything but the middles, all of that received and practiced crap,” Joshua Cohen writes in his new 600-page novel Book of Numbers, which begins with a fuck you and ends with the bloated bodies of Google executives washing ashore in third-world countries. The ending to be marked is the death of print and the beginning is the rise of the digital: a realm, as Cohen would have it, of screens, surveillance, volatile capital, and borderless commerce.

At 34, Joshua Cohen is the author of eight books. With the 2010 publication of Witz, an 800-page novel about the last Jew on Earth, Cohen first garnered comparisons to the major “systems” novelists of the pantheon—figures who Cohen is always quick to brush off as influences: Wallace as “too direct… too goyisher” and Pynchon as a writer he “thought a lot about in my late-ish teens.” If the footnote is Wallace’s signature, Cohen’s is an oral/aural word play emerging from the Jewish vernacular. Book of Numbers’ distinguishing mark is not the footnote but the slash: a mark that in written language indicates an either/or—fitting for a book obsessed with binaries, all kinds—but familiar now from the subdirectories of URLs.

Cohen has modeled his most recent novel on its titular section of (the) holy book(s) with which it shares a tripartite structure and an element of travelogue. The character’s monikers are likewise familiar: Moses, Miriam, Caleb, Aaron, and Joshua. However, Cohen’s interest in the Bible’s Numbers—the Torah’s Numbers—is in part with what follows it. In Numbers, God destroys the Israelites, who have already been punished to wander in the desert for forty years. Up until that point, the Torah has offered a nearly seamless chronology of events.

“And so then right after we erase this entire generation,” Cohen has said, “that next book Deuteronomy, D’Varum: Just laws. Laws. That’s it. The narrative’s done. The narrative’s done because we killed them all.” Cohen’s attention is compelled by this collapse in the narrative tradition. If this correlates to the novel’s sorrow over the death of print, it must be said that Cohen’s Book of Numbers is as ribald and pugnacious as elegiac. It’s a contentious novel, by its own choice, and I had my arguments with Book of Numbers but also found great pleasure in seeing Cohen give his all in pursuit of the big wild weird vision of the contemporary novel. Book of Numbers is an urgent and necessary sign of life in US literature.


The Rumpus: In my own proto-Internet experiences, I remember downloading porn a pixel at a time and also being spooked by a suicide note posted on a local message board. What were your early encounters with life online?

Joshua Cohen: They were fairly banal. At the time especially, with the technology available—especially available at my house—we were getting porn a pixelful at a time and people would kill themselves and put up their suicide note or pretend to kill themselves or put up somebody else’s suicide note. There was all of that. Heinrich Heine Maskenfreiheit—“the freedom conferred by masks.” It was the era of the experience but that wasn’t for me deeply formative.

What was formative for me was that I left the country in 2001. I was in Europe. One apartment I had was dial-up that I shared with three or four other people. It was very slow. The rest of it was at these things called “Internet cafes,” which I guess now are just called “cafes”—in Czech Republic, in Slovakia, in Poland, in Hungary, in Eastern Bloc countries—you paid by the minute, drank your coffee, and watched as your cigarette burned. The change for me was seeing friends represent themselves online while I was away, seeing the Internet enmesh them in that way.

Coming back to the states in 2006, I saw the degree to which digital technology had become so enmeshed in daily life. When I left the states in 2001, I didn’t have a cell phone; this was weeks before 9/11. When I came back in 2006, I was forced to get a cell phone or I wouldn’t have been able to get a job. I was struck by the rapidity of the change. Other elements of being away for a long time were in some ways disorienting, but the effect that digital interaction had had on friends I was trying to in some way become reacquainted with—that was alienating.

Rumpus: Online pornography plays a role in the novel. While you were living in Eastern Europe, you were a copy editor for an Eastern European porn production company. Would you be up for talking a little bit about that work?

Cohen: I was translating. They’d send me two paragraphs. Descriptions of various sex acts between men and women, men and men, women and women, and I translated them into English. I added my own stylistic touches to the prose, but that was the last moment that one could do that. This was still at the stage of CD-ROMs and that entire world has gone obviously to the Internet. So the moment that happened, the textual descriptions became a question of SEO—search engine optimization. The prose had to be geared toward the keywords people google for and so suddenly no one wanted my gushing copy anymore.

Rumpus: Book of Numbers is, in part, a leaked draft of the memoir of Joshua Cohen, the CEO of a Google-like company as ghostwritten by the obscure failed author Joshua Cohen with the gag that the author has signed non-disclosure agreements that prohibit him from telling anyone that he’s the true author even though the name that will be on the cover is, in a sense, his own. Much as the book is concerned with the ways information is managed, streamed, and collected online—but it’s also interested in how information is managed in print publishing. I found myself imagining the non-disclosure agreements Walter Isaacson had to sign to write his authorized Steve Jobs biography or millionaire CEOs who have bought enough copies of their own autobiography to get it onto the bestseller list. How did you model the flow and restriction of information in both print and digital culture? How is information routed in those two systems in ways that are sometimes invisible to us?

Cohen: That’s no longer a subject for critique anymore. It’s become the subject of art itself. In the sense that we’re living this reality show life—and we have been for a while now—in which all of our interests are backstage, behind the scenes. We want to see the cameraman walking into the shot. We want to see the boom mic bobbing. We want to know how the album was made, know how the painting was made. We want to know how the book was made. Writers have to do interviews and can’t just write. It’s this idea that there can be no sanctum for the craft—or maybe the craft is the only thing that can be the sanctum for the author to be separate from his or her work.

This is played out each month, each week, each day in newspapers and magazines and sites online in which the art section is for art business: What were the top-grossing movies of the summer weekend? How many weeks was something on the bestseller list? This spills up out of pages that should be—that could be—dedicated to actually speaking about beauty. That’s a fairly naïve world-belief, stupidly, but it’s still true.

This interest in the making of things is all a condition of rapid changing of format: we go from VHS to DVD, we go from film to digital. It’s this rapid changing of the formats in which we’re consuming culture that rhymes with, is synonymous with, that rapid consumption of culture. Just like old formats are discarded, old structures of thinking about art also get discarded. So suddenly we’re talking about the means of communication, we’re talking about the medium, and that to me is pregnant with anecdote and humor—and humor as a way to smuggle in more serious concerns.

It’s also dismaying. It continually keeps me on the surface. I have to really labor to chip away at what I feel are many layers of mediation that always lie between me and what I want to get at. The book was really a way to get rid of the layers. My thought was, “Let’s put the rough draft up there. Let’s comment on the rough draft. Let’s include the rough paragraph four times with minor variation.”

Rumpus: Binary programming is able to express nearly all human recorded knowledge with just two numbers, two symbols—zero and one. As a child, the character Principal creates an alphabet composed of only a single letter that he intends as capable of communicating all meaning. Was the alphabet of a single letter an attempt to take that one step further?

Cohen: The idea is that this alphabet of a single letter is a fundamentally efficient system. It has complete compression, but at the same time the greatest logic breeds the greatest illogic. It’s a totally nonfunctional language. You could never use it.

Rumpus: In both the first story in Four New Messages and in Book of Numbers, the character’s occasion for writing the text that we’re reading is specifically addressed and in Cadenza for Schneidermann there’s a foregrounded moment of speaking from which the whole book unfolds. The story as spoken or written narrative as well as its ‘point of telling’ are made very explicit. Why do you choose those and what do they bring to the work for you?

Cohen: I don’t think I choose those things. To me, that’s the beginning of writing. It’s “God said ‘Let there be light.’” I mean, who’s he talking to? He’s talking to himself or the light. In Homer, it’s the invocation of the muse. It’s the invocation, the pronunciation. I mean, to me, it’s not a choice. To me, it’s fundamental.

Rumpus: I think of your writing as in conversation with a kind of “regionalism”—a term with its problem as it implies a center and other places that are somehow less primary. I associate your writing with the cultures and literatures of Eastern European countries you lived in and then likewise with outer-borough New York. Has the European Union and New York’s always shifting boundaries removed some of that regionalism from the literatures and cultures of those places?

Cohen: I wouldn’t presume to comment on how the EU has affected these countries. The truth is that especially the Warsaw Pact countries, the Eastern Bloc countries, to say that they’re indigenous cultures—which is already so derisive of a characterization—was somehow negatively impacted when people my age and younger were able to finally travel to Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, London and have sex with other beautiful European teenagers. I think if you live in Poland and you want to stay Polish, that’s probably not too difficult.

New York I can comment on a little bit: The ways that money, as it gets closer to south Brooklyn, creeps into Queens, the South Bronx, Staten Island around the ferry terminal, what’s happened to Harlem—I’m not going to say I don’t like money. I’m not saying I don’t like not getting shot or stabbed. I will say that the neighborhoods that are dearest to me are the neighborhoods that can’t help but feel tenuous, not because they’re threatened by real estate developers but because the people who live in them are fairly new to the country in which they’ve arrived. Those neighborhoods continue and will always continue and I think the positive story of New York’s gentrification is that these enclaves are just growing in other cities. I’m all for having more Armenian restaurants in southern New Jersey.

Rumpus: In both Attention! and Book of Numbers, I started to think of cyborg lit or Donna Harraway’s Cyborg Manifesto—a merging of the human and the manufactured especially in the writing process—whether it’s through the Internet as an extension of the brain or through psychopharmaceuticals. Is that just a description of contemporary life as we now live it? How did you see that cyborg thinking functioning in a literary sense?

Cohen: There are two answers to that and I think they’re from two sides of the coin, which is to say—there’s a section of this book and I mean it in earnest—in which I didn’t look up anything online. The character, the ghostwriter Joshua Cohen is without Internet service because his modem is disabled in order to keep the transcripts of his interviews with Principal secure. So that was an exercise for me. I write by hand always but then it goes on the computer. Things get looked up if they need to get looked up. It was an interesting experiment: not allowing myself to use the Internet. It’s some of the better prose in the book.

In terms of the other thing, the truth is that I don’t like the term ‘cyborg’. It sounds a little too nasty. But what you’re talking about is really very much on the readerly side: being able to search text and jump around, companies that sell people books being able to monitor their reading habits and upload revised versions at any point.

But for me, the greatest effect is a travesty of that Joycean hope to keep the academy busy for a century or however long Joyce said. In the sense that any book that dictates serious academic literary attention, it’s going to be put through a computer. Stanford is essentially ground zero for this, where scholars will tell you which American or British author misplaces the most modifiers or when split infinitives became a thing or not a thing. And so the study of literature has become the study of data. In a sense, it kicks at that aspiration toward deconstructive reading—meaning the search for the writer’s betrayal by the unconscious and turns it into a mining operation. That to me is the most suspicious computer-assisted literary phenomenon.

Rumpus: Have you ever quit the Internet cold-turkey? Have you taken a forced Internet vacation?

Cohen: A forced net vacation seems even more controlled than letting the Internet control every moment of my life. I have no problem walking away from the thing. I have an addictive personality, but I’m probably addicted to my own ego most of all and for that I need to work.


Author photo © Beowulf Sheehan.

Ben Bush is a Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bookforum, The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poets & Writers, San Francisco Chronicle, The Literary Review (TLR), Yeti, and Conversations with William T. Vollmann (University of Mississippi Press). Follow him @BenHBush. More from this author →