No one can accuse Joshua Cohen of being short on chutzpah. His new novel, “Book of Numbers,” borrows its title from the Bible, and his creation myth about the birth of the Internet age aims to be as dense and difficult as the Bible. At a mere 580 pages, this novel is roughly half as long as David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” the reigning bible for aspiring literary novelists. It’s even shorter than Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” the granddaddy of all brainy, darkly comical postmodern novels. But Cohen will undoubtedly be compared to both of these forebears.
He’s not in their league.
[Review: David Foster Wallace’s last novel, ‘The Pale King.’]
Nevertheless, there are pleasures here if you’re fascinated by the history of search engines and/or willing to troll for the treasures.
As the novel opens, the protagonist, Joshua Cohen, a failed novelist from New Jersey in the middle of a messy divorce who also shares a name with the novel’s author, Joshua Cohen, is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of Joshua Cohen, the brilliant chief executive of Tetration. Tetration is the world’s most powerful Internet company. That they share the same name will, the chief executive muses, mean “something about the future of identity, something about names linking, or mislinking.” The powerful billionaire, a man of mystery known as the Principal, could not be more different from the nerdy novelist: In the movie version, Cohen-the-writer might be played by Zach Galifianakis. But being Cohen’s ghostwriter takes Cohen on a James Bond-worthy international tour as he tapes the Principal’s story.
The “transcripts” we get of that story are mostly unedited, studded with the occasional crossed-out passage (are we supposed to read them, or not?). The Principal chronicles the beginning of his fascination with code in high school and his days at Stanford University, where he met the roommates with whom he would go on to found the most far-reaching tech company of all time. Unfortunately, that technology will be hijacked by the evil Kori Dienerowitz for illegal espionage on unsuspecting citizens. As Pynchon would ask, are you paranoid if you’re actually being followed?
Along his journey, the ghostwriter, who has been commanded by his handlers to not even turn on his computer, fails to answer e-mails from his agent and his angry soon-to-be-ex-wife’s new boyfriend. He falls for a Yemeni woman, helps her escape her abusive husband, shares a precious night with her and, before delivering her to her brother in Vienna, helps her shed her burqa by taking her to the mall for a shopping trip right out of “Pretty Woman.”
There are scores of passages of very detailed technical information that might — or might not — be meaningful or amusing to coders who read this book: “We would begin with the concept of existing space vs. new space, proceed into talking through the entailments of each w/r/t data and electricity, racked mountables per cabinet, and cabinets per corridor, seismal dampering algidities, praxeological redundancies.” These passages are not interpreted for the lay reader, which would ostensibly be one advantage of reading a great tech inventor’s autobiography, especially as translated by a literary novelist used to very different kinds of invention.
There are also many passages, indeed whole chapters, of Too Much Information, as both Cohens seem to realize. At one point, the Principal frets, “This sentence both is, lazy and ridiculous.” Later, the ghostwriter sighs, “You expend all this effort writing something and thinking through the detail of every decision (do I name the restaurant we met at? or just describe them? do I mention what was ordered? who took care of the bill?), but then you finish, or you delude yourself into finishing, and realize — too late, with the book already a classic of the bargain bin — that you’d missed something, a scene or even just a line that would’ve brought everything together, that would’ve resolved all the fogs.”
Reading “Book of Numbers” is like trying to concentrate on an online article that keeps being interrupted by flashing ads, exhortations to click below the jump — and then the Web browser freezes or you lose the thread because you’re distracted by a video about the touching rescue of a horribly abused pit bull. If you think that this is an interesting reading experience — that Cohen has replicated the manic confusion of trying to produce literature in the digital age — then you may well enjoy “Book of Numbers.” For this reader, though, the intentional sloppiness feels more than a tad self-indulgent and smacks of what lit-crit types call the fallacy of imitative form: when a work’s formlessness is justified by how well it mimics the chaotic, disintegrating, incoherent nature of the modern world.
Cohen is at his best when he slows the pace long enough to allow scenes to develop, as he does with a terrific set piece about the techies from Tetration hanging out with monks in a Japanese Buddhist temple, then buying the nuclear plant next door. And he makes some wry, accurate observations about how technology has hijacked our lives, such as the obsessive way men pat their phones in their pockets as they enter parties, “reassuring: like it was the last time they’d make love to a spouse they’d have to abandon.”
One of the challenges of working on a novel about technology is that by the time the book comes out, much of the news is not so new. Chunks of the Cohens’ riffs about coders in group houses in Silicon Valley might come right out of the HBO show “Silicon Valley.” Amazing that Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49,” written in 1966 — before the Internet or personal computers — covers many of the philosophical implications of those seismic changes in communication in ways that still resonate. Similarly, William Gibson — clearly a strong influence on Cohen — manages to get a holographic, futuristic glint in his narratives that somehow doesn’t date them. “Book of Numbers” will not have anywhere near as long a relevant life. As the Principal says about an early keyboard from one of the original programming geniuses, “Software configs and coalescing manufacturing parameters would make all of this hardware obsolete by 1999, but still it was admirable. Few devices get even a year between usable and admirable.”
Alas, the same might be said of many novels — especially the up-to-the-nanosecond ones.
Zeidner’s most recent novel is “Love Bomb.” She teaches in the MFA program at Rutgers University at Camden. For more books coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/books.