User Illusions

Book of Numbers: A Novel BY Joshua Cohen. Random House. Hardcover, 672 pages. $28.

The cover of Book of Numbers: A Novel

Back in the last millennium (1993, to be exact), I was asked to serve as the house hipster on a panel at an advertising conference in San Francisco. At the time, digital marketing, the subject of the conference, was still bleeding-edge stuff, not the ubiquitous warp and weft of our matrixed present. These were the days of Al Gore’s fabled “Information Superhighway,” to be brought to you by that miraculous oxymoron, the “smart TV.” Mosaic, the first widely available Web browser, had just been released. For most, the Internet meant Prodigy, CompuServe, America Online—Candy Land interfaces known as “walled gardens” in the newspeak of Silicon Valley venture capitalists. For more intrepid users, those willing to learn a few UNIX shell commands, it meant little more than intimidating, time-sucking virtual “communities” on topic-based “bulletin boards,” all in plain ASCII text—unmoderated, immoderate precincts where you could encounter tattooed-dog subcultures, experiments in self-trepanation, and the finer points of Prince Alberts and other outré body mods. Anyone commenting on these boards could expect to be flamed daily by malevolent hackers and cantankerous trolls. (God help you if you ever tried to sell anything, even something as contextually appropriate as a vintage Moog synthesizer or a tattooed dog; you’d be banned, suspended, flamed out of existence.) There were no ads on the Internet, “relevant” or otherwise. I repeat: There were no ads on the Internet.

My fellow presenters were emissaries from the top US ad agencies and demographic-research firms. The attendees were largely salespeople for regional Yellow Pages directories, unwittingly there, pads in hand, to take notes on the beginning of the end of their careers. I was there on behalf of MONDO 2000, a pioneering cyberculture magazine where I was an editor and columnist, and which, I now have to explain to people, was the source of most of Wired magazine’s early ideas, but far more wondrous, strange, and proudly uncommercial. I read from my column “Remote Control: The Interactivity Myth,” which peered into the near future to critique the ostensible “freedom” bestowed on consumers by the ability to interact with five hundred channels of Internet-enabled television. “The lure of interactivity is that you can create your own programming,” I wrote. “And as you make your choices, you reveal yourself utterly. The AI expert systems are playing gotcha! with your soul. As they hone their analysis of your view-purchase patterns, they will feed you back what they determine you want, predetermining your desires, as you become ever more narrowly what your psychographic profile says you are.”

I recount the above not merely to burnish my oracular bona fides (though I will, ahem, remind everyone that Amazon was founded in 1994, Google in 1998, and Facebook in 2004), but also because it’s consonant with the wounded narcissism of the character Joshua Cohen, “failed novelist, poet, screenwriter, husband and son, pro journalist, speechwriter, and ghostwriter,” who may or may not represent the real-life author of Book of Numbers, a hefty novel about the early days of the Web and the rise of Tetration (a thinly veiled Google) that is likely to be the throwdown doorstop of the season. In the novel, the character Joshua Cohen is hired to ghost an autobiography of another character named Joshua Cohen—a far more important, much higher-PageRanked Joshua Cohen, who is the founder of Tetration and, as such, a thinly veiled Larry Page, though with personality traits borrowed from Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. Initially, failed writer Cohen thinks of Internet overlord Cohen as “the man whose business has ruined my business, whose pleasure has ruined my pleasure, whose name has obliviated my own.” Out of equal parts self-abasement and passive retaliation, writer Cohen dubs mogul Cohen “Principal” and, after signing the mother of all nondisclosure agreements, begins a series of meetings with Principal for interview sessions in far-flung destinations around the globe.

Real-life author Joshua Cohen is thirty-four years old and can write his ass off. Judging by the length of his previous novel, Witz (800 pages), and of this one (592 pages), and the crowded, multivocal density of his practice, his seemingly obsessive skills approach graphomania. He has a keen ear for the rhythms of speech—its variable eccentricities, its individualized perversions of language. I can’t recall when I’ve been more aware of a novelist’s prose having been read aloud—that shibboleth of “good writing”—to test its music. He is so in love with language that he occasionally overwrites: “Her mouth was intensely ovoid, an almond mouth, of citrus crescents. And under that sling, her breasts were like young fawns, sheep frolicking in hyssop”—to the point where I found myself shouting, “Stop it, just STOP IT!” (That the fawn bit is lifted from the Song of Solomon does not excuse the fact that breasts are not woolly and do not frolic, even metaphorically, in hyssop or otherwise, particularly when the owner of said breasts is standing still and waiting for Cohen to take his clothes off.) The frolicking, fawn-like breasts appear at the end of a fairly preposterous episode in which failed, out-of-shape writer Cohen violently saves a young Arab woman in a hotel hallway in Abu Dhabi from a beating at the hands of her husband and then sleeps with her, turned on by the notion that she might be hiding C-4 plastique in her underwear: “I wanted her to do it now, I wanted her to just detonate herself and get it over with. . . . Blasting me away, blowing us both through the floor, and ticking through the igniferous floors below it, bombing the lobby at mortal checkout—bringing the hypostyle to crash, the arches to collapse, atop a cuneiform of limbs and kilim tatters and fragments of the monogrammed blazon of Allah that’d pendulated over the interactive pillars.” Lighten up, Francis.

An ASCII-art portrait of Joshua Cohen.
An ASCII-art portrait of Joshua Cohen. Marionett Linger

Still, it’s hard to quibble at the prose level with real-life Cohen’s monstrous talent and restive, roiling intellect. He’s swinging for the bleachers where, at the top of the stands, Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, and Wallace hover above the field in their skybox. And when he’s not entangling himself in cuneiforms of limbs and kilim tatters, he often gets there. Other recent literary novels have treated the dot-com-mania reboot, its flagship companies, and their “disruptive” technologies—Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, Dave Eggers’s The Circle—but Cohen’s is the best, at least for the time being. As the press notes (for once) correctly emphasize, Cohen is the perfect age to write such a book, having lived approximately an even number of years on either side of the pre-Web/post-Web divide. He gets “kids these days” and partakes of their Net-fueled narcissism, owning it in a way that earlier writers never could, but he has the erudition and historical grounding of a much older man, equally at home with Python code, Yiddish poets, porn sites, and prehistorical fertility sculptures. At root, Book of Numbers is a systems novel about ranking algorithms and the quantification of the self that draws on Hinduism, Buddhism, Jewish genealogy, quantum mechanics, conspiracy theory, Silicon Valley, the Middle East, New York publishing, WikiLeaks, and the American intelligence community. As such, it is masterful.

Contrary to Cohen’s statements in a 2013 blog interview, however, the novel is only very loosely a postmodern update of the Book of Numbers from the Pentateuch. Yes, Principal’s name is Joshua. Yes, Principal’s father was a computer scientist at Xerox PARC—the research lab from which Steve Jobs and Bill Gates stole foundational innovations of the personal-computer revolution—and failed to grok the importance of software and online networks. Yes, there is an Indian engineer nicknamed “Moe,” who provides Principal with the seed concept of Tetration’s ranking algorithm, thereby helping Principal to conquer the “promised land” of the Web. But Principal’s father’s name is Abraham, and his grandfather’s is Joseph. Failed writer Cohen’s agent is named Aaron, but he has no relation to Moe, familial or otherwise. The America of 1971 to 2011 was no more a desert or wilderness than it was in any other forty-year span of its existence. And can the Web, with its enabling of relentless, automated surveillance by corporations and governments, really be considered a “promised land” at this point by anyone other than Internet-company CEOs and SIGINT officers?

High-concept fuzziness aside, Book of Numbers is dense with pithy, aphoristic observations (usually from the mouth of Principal) that map the post-Google/Facebook zeitgeist more accurately than anything else in contemporary fiction: “What’s privacy to the employee is security to the boss”; “It was an addiction, because the self is an addiction”; “The future is the client, the past is just something to find”; “The more a thing was clicked, the more perfect that thing would be”; “Expose the users to all competitors because the exposure itself will be the shop of life, where users become their own products and/or services”; “Suddenly, to lose touch was to die, and the only prayer left for anyone who felt buried whether under information or debris was for a signal strong enough to let their last words outlive them on voicemail”; “Our appetite for secrets is our appetite for fame. How many we keep is how much we lack.”

For my part (let’s face it, narcissism is a feature, not a bug, for me, failed writer Cohen, real writer Cohen—all writers), I was chuffed to see my voice-in-the-wilderness pronouncements in 1993 so perfectly echoed, and improved on, by the following Tetration product description: “Autotet is an app that searches without having been instructed to find, collecting terms from Tetmail and Tetset, from all our products and services, and then generates a unique online experience for each user, by directing him or her to pertinent sites that have never before and might never otherwise be visited. It has what you want/need before you need/want it, delivering you in advance. . . . Autotet predicts what you will do based on what you have done. Not predicts, but determines. Destinies, fates. Entraps your future in your past.” With its insinuations of spiritual predestination and recursive, clockwork fatalism, this is digital Calvinism, a notion I’ve thought of exploring at book length (nonfiction) for many years. Maybe I’ll call it Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. As for numbers, if you want to count me, count me out.

Andrew Hultkrans is the author of Forever Changes (Bloomsbury, 2003), the second volume in the “33 1/3” series of books on classic albums. He was managing editor and columnist at MONDO 2000 in the early ’90s.