Readers who may have shied away from Joshua Cohen’s previous novel, Witz (2010), because of its daunting length (over 800 pages) and presumed difficulty will probably find his new novel, Book of Numbers, rather less intimidating and more accessible, if not exactly an airport book. At a mere 600 pages it is still bulky enough, and while its prose is not quite as dense and its narrative not quite as opaque as in Witz, it hardly represents an embrace of conventional formal strategies. Few readers are likely to regard it as a work of mainstream “literary fiction.”
It is really only as compared with Witz, and to a lesser extent Cohen’s first novel, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, that Book of Numbers seems more restrained, more reader-friendly. Witz may or may not be an entirely successful novel, but it is surely a novel like no other before it. It could be described as a kind of postapocalyptic narrative, although it is closer to satire or absurdist farce than to dystopian fable. The premise is certainly outrageous enough: A plague whose origins and method of transmission are never explained wipes out all Jews on earth except, at least temporarily, first-born sons. This leaves Benjamin Israelien, the firstborn son (with twelve sisters) of an upper-middle-class family from New Jersey, alive to face the realities of the new world, which not long after the plague has done its work becomes entirely Jewless except for Ben, who somehow survives the additional extinction of remaining Jews.
Benjamin, born just shortly before the plague hits, but born fully grown (complete with beard and glasses), comes to be exploited as the Last Jew on Earth, and he flees from those who would turn him into a marketing device in a country that, now without real Jews, becomes obsessed with them, experiencing mass conversions to the ways of the “Affiliated” (the word used throughout the novel in place of “Jew”). Benjamin sets out on a picaresque journey during which he encounters many strange people and traverses a surrealistic landscape that, while ostensibly more Jewish in its customs and culture, increasingly alienates Benjamin Israelien, the actually living Jew. The journey ends with Benjamin in Polandland, where those who refuse to be affiliated are sent and “leisured to death,” the Holocaust transformed into a theme park death camp.
The wholesale rejection of the assimilationist narrative that dominates American Jewish fiction is palpable in the novel’s narrative excess and burlesque atmosphere, the latter of which is accomplished through Cohen’s signature prose style, which combines qualities of the stand-up comedian, vernacular Jewish-American speech, and Talmudic commentaries. It is at times (perhaps most of the time) just as excessive as the novel’s extravagant plot developments:
We have been taught thusly that a knock, a rap, an application of the hand, of the knuckles, the palm, is variable with intent, that a knock must spend itself in only one of two ways, depending; and so we have two interpretations, one to each fist, united in purpose; whereas some scholars say, a knock ends when the hand breaks contact with the struck surface, other scholars hold that it’s when the sound of its striking is rendered imperceptible, when it’s said to die — physics and the acoustics aside, this is philosophy, what’s meant is the appreciation of senses. But this knock is strange; it’s as if the fist or all the world’s fists at once are metamorphosing into the door, and without any breaking, any cracking, or splinter, in a knock that’s forever a knock, a massed hand of hands exploring the surface, the lifespan of entry, though others hold that the hand of God outstretched and strongarmed only strikes quickly, then removes itself, retracts into its own power and infinite mercy, and that the sound then lives, not reverberates, that the knock sounds in a single wave throughout the structure of the house, the solo stroke transmitting itself in full to the foundations on up to the roof and quaking with light, undiminished — the entire house knocked upon, this house of total door. . . .
Beyond the novel’s mammoth scale and outlandish narrative, ultimately this profuse prose is the novel’s most essential feature, creating a fictional world shaped and misshaped by its loopy eloquence and careening rhythms. Witz is a thoroughly unconventional, audacious novel, most emphatically so in its style, which shows Joshua Cohen to be a writer who rejects the notion that less is more, instead affirming the proposition that more is more.
This principle is at work in Book of Numbers as well, although as with the novel’s plot and premise, its style is also more muted than that of Witz. Initially presented as a memoir — or notes toward a memoir — written by “Joshua Cohen,” a failed novelist whose first and only novel was doomed to eternal disregard when it was published on September 10, 2001, eventually it becomes the story of his ill-fated collaboration with a second Joshua Cohen, “the Joshua Cohen I’m always mistaken for . . . The man whose business has ruined my business, whose pleasure has ruined my pleasure, whose name has obliviated my own.” This JC is the billionaire founder of “Tetration,” a high-tech company clearly modeled on Google, and the largest part of the novel relates the history of this company — and by association the history of the Internet — through the transcripts of the interviews for a ghost-written memoir that Joshua Cohen conducts with Joshua Cohen (the latter referred to by the former as the “Principal”). The project ultimately runs afoul of a Wikileaks-like organization that wants to disclose the contents of the interviews because of Principal’s revelations about his company’s cooperation with the U.S. government in its surveillance activities.
In the expository passages of the novel’s first pages, the narrator Joshua Cohen provides a relatively straightforward account of his circumstances (not altogether happy), although his language is far from rhetorically plain, as when he describes the writing of the novel whose failure has left him scrambling for a career:
I’d worried for months, fretted for years, checked thesauri and dictionaries for other verbs I could do, I’d paced. I couldn’t sleep or wake, fantasized best, worst, and average case scenarios. Working on a book had been like being pregnant, or like planning an invasion of Poland. To write it I’d taken a parttime job in a bookstore I’d taken off from my parttime job in the bookstore, I’d lived cheaply in Ridgewood and avoided my friends. I’d been avoided by friends, procrastinated by spending noons at the Battery squatting alone on a boulder across from a beautiful young paleskinned blackhaired mother rocking a stroller back and forth with a fetish boot while she read a book I pretended was mine, hoping that her baby stayed sleeping forever or at least until I’d finish the thing its mother was reading — I’d been finishing it forever — I’d just finished it, I’d just finished and handed it in.
But it is when the narrator gives the story over to his namesake and the chronicle of the rise of Tetration from shoestring tech start-up to worldwide digital dominance that Joshua Cohen (the author) again affirms the centrality of language, of the role of uninhibited language in defining the aesthetic character of his fiction. In a typical passage relating his experiences, Principal explains: “We flamed the PARCy with emails, as like other avatars, as like the same avatars but registered with other services, batchelor but now @prodigy, cuddlemaven but now @Genie. We even went trolling for him among the dossy BBSes and subscribed to leetish listservs and wrote posts or comments or whatever they were called then to autogenerate and hex all the sysops down.” Much of Principal’s story is told in this way, not only revealing how thoroughly Cohen has acquainted himself with the jargon of computer systems but also allowing him to evoke the world this character inhabits, which has increasingly become the world the rest of us have been compelled to inhabit. This language thus becomes the novel’s method of achieving a kind of verisimilitude — it is faithful to present reality — but as well works to estrange us from that reality, although it might be the case that such estrangement is actually inherent in the rapidly attained global hegemony of cyber media.
The reader in effect is put in the same position toward the novel’s depicted world — to the extent that it is portrayed as essentially incomprehensible, anti-human — as the protagonist is toward his own life, alienated as he is from his marriage and his career. In some ways, the protagonist of Book of Numbers is a recognizable schlemiel-type character, his story that of his own bad luck and ineptitude, the reader left to decide which is the more accurate characterization. The contrast with the successful Joshua Cohen is, of course, stark, and although we eventually learn that Principal is dying of cancer, we are never really provided a proper death scene and at the end of the novel he has become a kind of mythical figure, his dead body purportedly discovered all over the world, while our protagonist Joshua Cohen returns to New Jersey and moves in with his mother.
If Book of Numbers, while far from a conventional narrative, turns out to meet ordinary expectations of what a novel should look like more readily than Witz, both of these novels defy the moderate norms of “literary fiction.” Most immediately, they might be seen as extensions of what the critic Thomas LeClair has called “the art of excess,” the most recent in the line of large-scale, overdetermined novels written during the past 40 years by American writers that include such works as Gravity’s Rainbow, JR, several books by Don DeLillo, and Wallace’s Infinite Jest. But while they each certainly well enough fit LeClair’s general description of the “massive novel” (or “meganovel”) that is “profoundly informed, inventively crafted, and cunningly rhetorical,” neither Witz nor Book of Numbers is quite “excessive” in the way LeClair has in mind when further identifying these earlier works as “systems” novels, novels that “represent and intellectually master the power systems they exist within and are about” (The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction, 1989). They don’t so much attempt to incorporate elements of the “power systems they exist within” as part of their representational strategies (as, for example, Pynchon does with ecological systems in Gravity’s Rainbow) as remain content to be “about” the systems they examine.
Witz, despite its gargantuan scale, could be identified as an allegorical satire, a form of social criticism the excesses of which increase the amplitude of the critique but don’t really transform the traditional purpose of this sort of literary discourse or subvert assumptions about the nature of representation in fiction. Indeed, ultimately the narrative depends upon the assumption that it concerns a unitary “subject” worthy of such critique and reinforces the belief that a fictional narrative can be discreet and linear, even as it meanders through a grotesque, irreal landscape. Book of Numbers is more static, fragmented, and metafictional, but its more conspicuous postmodern devices are still employed to accomplish a unitary purpose in advancing a cautionary tale about the hazards of the Internet Age (a purpose that is further underscored by the allegorical parallels suggested by the novel’s title, with Principal’s group of bohemian tech geeks — led by a troubled genius named “Moe” — taking on the symbolic status of the Israelites wandering in the desert, seeking the Promised Land). Of course, Book of Numbers concerns itself with a “system” — probably the most influential and all-encompassing system whose effects we now encounter — but again the novel is squarely “about” this system, an account of its depredations of a kind that doesn’t really ask us to reconceive the novel as a literary form.
This does not lessen Joshua Cohen’s achievement in either of these novels, indicating merely that he uses “excess” as a literary strategy to serve his own ends. Although clearly enough Cohen has been influenced by Pynchon and DeLillo, Coover and Barth (as well as Stanley Elkin and, in his more stylistically baroque phases, Philip Roth), this influence is expressed as a more generalized preference for an augmented scope and an inclination to transgress presumed limits. Certainly Cohen’s novels are formally unorthodox, but his most transgressive practice is stylistic. Reading both Witz and Book of Numbers, but especially the former, one either becomes ensnared by Cohen’s immoderate prose (and his abundant sense of humor) or literally just finds it all too much. Book of Numbers arguably subsumes some of the verbal energy to the greater clarity of plot and theme the novel provides, but while this might make it somewhat less formidable, for me at least (paradoxically, perhaps) it also to that degree makes it that much less satisfying.