The Book of Numbers: Easy to understand, hard to tolerate

By David Holmes , written on July 21, 2015

From The Books Desk

This is what it feels like to read Joshua Cohen’s latest novel, Book of Numbers:

You wake up with your laptop next to your head, the television show you binge-fell-asleep to still playing.

You open Twitter and see that a friend tweeted out a story about Bernie Sanders’ proposed climate change policy. You only read a few sentences before you see a chart that breaks up the text on the page tracking Democratic favorability ratings. Here, you see a candidate you don't know much about, so you open a new tab and visit the politician's Wikipedia page. There, you discover that his wife is a film producer who worked on Jurassic World. Hold up, doesn't Spielberg have a new movie coming out?

New tab: You can't find the movie but you do find a mashup on YouTube revealing every sloppy continuity error in one of his films. There are a ton. A clip from Jaws makes you remember your friend's Facebook post the other day of a shark attack at a pro surfing contest caught on camera; naturally, you had hit "like" but didn't actually watch it. You visit his page to find the clip only to discover he's engaged! Mazel Tov!

All the sudden you think, "Should I propose to my girlfriend?" You open a new tab and search for "vintage+hip+engagement+ring" on Etsy, but the prices stress you out so you leave the tab open but go back to Twitter, where a story about creepy, killer octopi that live at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, proves too clickable to resist. Which begins the cycle anew until you've got so many tabs open that you can't even see each site's favicon nor the first letter of each tab's title, thus rendering your browser -- and your brain -- as blank and useless as it was when you woke up… and no closer to discovering Sanders’ plan to combat climate change.

Take a deep breath and repeat after me:

Close that tab. Close all your tabs. Close that browser. Close that laptop. And now close Book of Numbers.

Books -- especially ones made from dead trees -- are supposed to be a soothing salve to our digital age of anxiety, providing an escape from outrage cycles, viral videos, and TMI.

But Book of Numbers is designed from the ground-up to heighten the reader’s anxiety. It’s not an act of sadism by Cohen. He simply wants readers to relate to and understand the travails of his colossally stressed-out protagonist. But especially if you’re, say, a journalist whose job involves juggling dozens of tabs and tweets for 8 to 12 hours a day, this novel is among the least therapeutic experiences you’re likely have while reading a book.

From William Faulkner's Sound and the Fury to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest to James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, some of the most critically-acclaimed novels of modern and post-modern literature are notoriously difficult to understand. While reading that trio of tomes, I probably "got" it no more than 80%, 70%, and 1% of the time, respectively.

Book of Numbers isn't terribly difficult to understand, however. It's simply difficult to tolerate.

For nearly 600 pages, Cohen subjects readers to the literary equivalent of falling into a Wikipedia hole. And that's precisely the point. As the narrator and those around him leap from discussing architecture in Dubai to holding forth on the habits of Hindu monks -- each topic described with more intense academic rigor than the last -- the novel effectively mimics the free associative links that connect the millions of terabytes of data stored and transmitted on the Internet.

For users, these links are a crucial necessity. Without them - and without search engines and social networks to filter them even more - the Internet would be like a library the size of Planet Earth that nobody bothered to catalog, where nothing is put back where it was found.

But by following these circuitous links with insane, click-happy abandon and blind faith in the logic of search engines, Cohen reveals just how rough, frustrating, and susceptible to corruption and surveillance the contours of the Information Age still are today.

In many ways, Cohen is a victim of his own intelligence and talent. The trouble for readers who dare to pick up Book of Numbers is that the author’s presentation of this Unified Theory of the Internet is so effective and visceral that, as a reader, I became almost physically ill trying to follow this tangled and dizzying 600 page dash through ever-deeper circles of Internet hell.

Cohen even warns readers at the book's onset that they should follow the author's narrative breadcrumbs at their own risk:

"If you're reading this on a screen, fuck off," the first line reads. Because I was too impatient (or lazy or cheap or in possession of any number of human traits exacerbated by the Internet) I was in fact reading "Book of Numbers" on a screen. And so my first thought was, "No, Joshua Cohen, you fuck off, you pretentious Luddite dick."

Then I forgave him, realizing that there are two Joshua Cohens: the author and the narrator who, by all indications, is far crankier and less likable than the author. (There are actually three Joshua Cohens, but more on that in a moment).

But about 200 pages into the book, I realized the line was less a shot across the bow at ebook readers and more a warning: if you read this book on an Internet-connected device, you are liable to go insane. Indeed, Book of Numbers so faithfully recreates the feeling of sensory, cultural, and intellectual overload of surfing the Internet in 2015, that to add another real layer of Internet, packed behind a eye-strangling screen, to the artificial Internet constructed in these pages is psychological suicide.

You might think by my description thus far that "Book of Numbers" is little more than an instrument of pointless torture and suffering. I almost wish it were, as that would make it a lot easier to put down, but Cohen has crafted a fairly compelling plot that dares readers to keep swiping those digital pages.

Book of Numbers picks up where Thomas Pynchon left off in Bleeding Edge, this century's other towering work of post-modern tech fiction set in New York City. The date is September 10, 2001, and Joshua Cohen (the character) is celebrating the release of his first novel, based on his mother's horrific experiences in the Polish ghettos and later in concentratjon camps. Despite the seriousness of the book, Cohen celebrates with booze, cocaine, and video games – a sort of last hurrah before the world falls apart.

The book then jumps ahead in time to find Cohen approached by yet another Joshua Cohen, the CEO of a Google-esque search giant called Tetration – whom the narrator refers to going forward as “The Principal.” The Principal wants Cohen to ghost-write his autobiography – that is, after signing an encyclopedia’s worth of NDAs. What follows is a tech-damaged mystery, broken up in the middle by a very very very long transcript of the two Cohens’ interview – which, like many post-modern experiments, is more interesting in theory than in practice.

Luckily, the novel picks back up after the tiresome second act, but to be clear, this isn’t a book about murder or conspiracies or government coverups -- though these elements are undoubtedly central to the novel.

The larger theme of Book of Numbers, however, pertains less to what technology is doing to our politicians or our corporations or our societies, and more what it’s doing to our minds. For Cohen, the reader is the guinea pig, subjected to the narrator’s painfully schizophrenic musings, which begin to spin out-of-control once Cohen puts a smartphone in his hands.

Many readers will be sure to bristle at Cohen’s hyper-intellectualism, intensely self-aware narration, and a number of other post-modern techniques. The “meta” qualities of the book can get particularly annoying, as they’re pushed to the same extremes as the ones on display in Dave Eggers’ really-good-but-kind-of-only-when-you’re 20-years-old Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – only Eggers is much funnier.

For the most part, however, there’s a larger ambition driving Cohen’s post-modern indulgences, and so as an objective critic it’s impossible not to forgive him.

But as a more subjective reader, I couldn’t help but compare Book of Numbers to the work of David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, particularly the latter’s takedown of the New York tech scene in the months prior to 9/11, Bleeding Edge. Cohen is arguably these literary giants’ equal when it comes to intellectualism and technique. But he doesn’t possess even a fraction of Wallace’s huge heart and sincerity. Meanwhile, Cohen’s cynicism isn’t nearly as biting or funny as that of Pynchon.

As a daunting yet impressive literary experiment that probes the damaging effects of the Information Age on our psyches and sanity, Book of Numbers is a piece of literature unlike anything the world has ever seen. And Cohen’s voice and approach are so unique that I’m not sure there’s a writer living or dead who could write this book quite like Cohen has.

But does the world need a 600-page gauntlet of a read to know that the Internet is driving us mad? I’m not so sure. And in order to drive home his point, Cohen nearly defeats his own purpose by driving us mad himself.