While Joshua Cohen’s Book Of Numbers may not be as long as his last novel Witz–this one’s nearly 600 pages compared to the latter’s 800–it’s equally as dense and intricately plotted. And just like Witz, this is a novel that both lives and dies by its density. It’s a book filled with information, detail, intellect, humor, and yes, numbers. There’s something remarkable about the way Cohen brings the complex nature of technology to life, but there are also many times when he staggers, when the tech-heavy lingo and ultra-detailed prose obscures the humanity at the heart of the novel.
Book Of Numbers is the story of Joshua Cohen, a struggling novelist whose first book failed because it was released on September 11, 2001—or at least that’s the excuse he makes. While going through a messy divorce and failing to fend off a pornography addiction, Joshua is hired by a billionaire, also named Joshua Cohen (but referred to as the Principal, thankfully), to ghostwrite his memoirs. The Principal is a tech genius who founded the company Tetration that, for all intents and purposes, is a more advanced version of Google. Characters spend the novel “tetrating” everything they can, using the company name as a verb.
Once novelist Cohen accepts the gig, he’s brought into a world of high-tech lingo and cross-country secrecy. He flies from Dubai to Frankfurt and Palo Alto, interviewing the internet mogul while also dodging any of his other responsibilities back home, be it to his soon-to-be ex-wife Rachel or his consistently out-of-the-loop agent. Throughout his travels he meets a varied cast of characters, from an Arab woman he begins an affair with after saving her from an abusive husband, to a Julian Assange stand-in who wants to expose the secrets of Tetration and the Principal.
Book Of Numbers reads a lot like David Foster Wallace’s posthumous, unfinished novel The Pale King, but where Wallace dove deep into the mundanities of tax collection, Cohen has immersed his novel in tech talk. There are passages that rely heavily on shorthand and insider lingo, so much so that it’s almost impossible to keep up. Cohen’s deep vocabulary certainly doesn’t help the matter, his intellect and breadth of knowledge firmly on display throughout the sprawling novel. For the most part, Cohen’s (the real one) prose reflects the urgency and coldness of the internet, which makes for insightful thematic work but can slow the pace of the story to a crawl.
Book Of Numbers goes especially cold in its middle section, which is made up of a hurried transcript of multiple conversations between Cohen and the Principal. It’s here that the Principal details how Tetration came to be, a Silicon Valley type story of grunt work and success that sprawls across hundreds of pages. The problem is that the Principal is nowhere near as compelling as Cohen the novelist, and this lengthy section ends up reading like, well, an unedited transcript of an interview that’s heavy on filler.
With that said, the rest of Book Of Numbers is alive with humor and insight. Cohen has been compared to Philip Roth multiple times, but the similarities are perhaps most obvious in this book. Cohen boasts an acerbic wit and has no problem putting his protagonist through the wringer. The novel’s Cohen is an egoist, an unlikable (but not evil) and untrustworthy narrator who lacks the ability to analyze his own shortcomings and thinks the world owes him something. It’s in these parts of the novel that Book Of Numbers shines. When Cohen (the fictional one) reflects on the process of ghostwriting and brings in his own messy history, there’s a humanity there that’s uncomfortable and meaningful, something that’s absent in the lengthy conversations with the Principal that make up much of the book. Book Of Numbers is a fractured look at what it means to be human in the digital age, and a novel that doesn’t quite find the balance between indicting the coldness of digital culture and replicating it.