Book Review: “Book of Numbers” by Joshua Cohen

Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen

I don’t know what to make of this book.

It’s certainly not a simple story, or even several stories. That would require some sort of beginning and ending, which is hard to discern.

There is a central character, with the same name as the author, and (in an exhaustively explored plot point), also the same name as a billionaire who hires him to ghost write his/their biography. Whose life are we telling? It is very confusing.

The stories of the family, friends, coworkers, and even chance encounters of one of the JCs are also recounted. I’m sure that the complex, overlapping stories, and confusions about what has happened is intentional. Life is messy, things cannot always be told as a simple story, we do not even always understand our own stories. I get it.

Still, if you are going to tell me a story, it would be nice to do it in a way I can understand.

The complex plotting and the indecipherable personalities of the characters are exacerbated by deliberately muddled writing. The author uses several voices to distinguish different people telling their version (though who is writing what is mostly up to the reader to figure out). Furthermore, he deliberately provides realistically messy text, as would be typed, dictated, or possibly hand written. This stylistic choice makes the reading much, much more difficult and, in some places, unpleasant. We get dozens of pages of ungrammatical blog postings, hundreds of pages of faux transcripts apparently from the dictation by a semiliterate tech billionaire (if I ever “as like” see the words “as like” again, I may scream), and hundreds of pages of “first draft” with strike outs, broken sentences, and misspellings.

It is hard to read, and goes on a long time.

As to the stories themselves. Well, there are a half dozen or more, I didn’t count. One story recounts the early days of the Web, fictionalizing the birth of a Google-like entity. This story is loosely based on history, but certainly is not factual. (His “learned” discussion of “search” is gobblygook. Please.) But Cohen isn’t trying for history, he’s trying to describe the “vibe”, and he’s not so far off on that. But still, this mush is not satisfying if you actually were part of it for real. It was both more and less weird than he tells.

He carries the tech story forward to a fictionalized NSA/Snowden/Wikileaks tale, which is even less satisfying. He seems to be working from news accounts, which are not exactly complete or accurate accounts. Here we have fiction derived from media accounts, which were based on “leaks” by highly motivated parties whose motives we don’t really know.. Ick. At least Cohen gets the paranoia right.

There are also other stories, (fictional) Cohen’s troubled marriage, his troubled career, his parents story, and a chance encounter in the desert. I all cases, these are loosely real life, highly fictionalized, and full of factual holes. As you can tell, I’m not as impressed as some reviewers with his understanding of IT or computing.

You can call this a large, ambitious effort. And the complexity (and messiness) did keep me reading. There are so many balls in the air, so many questions open, that you want to read on, to slog through the swamps of bad grammar and incomprehensible blather, to find out what happens to these people (if anything).

But we don’t find out. None of the stories are resolved. I don’t mean the stories are left unfinished, there are not one but two characters who are either alive or dead or both, we really don’t know.

It’s horrible.

Maybe that’s the point, that life doesn’t end in a convenient ever after. But still. It pretty hard on the reader to let us into the lives of these troubled people, and not let us know if or how they resolve even the most obvious of the problems.

Why do I find myself suggesting, yet again, that this would be better if it were shorter?  Has ubiquitous word processor technology made it too easy to produce more and more words? Or is it too costly to expend time and effort honing written works?

Would I recommend this book? I’m not sure. I enjoyed parts of it, I hated parts of it.

It is bad history, and totally ignorant of life beyond NYC. It is not an especially intelligent comment on digital technology (except maybe as experienced by writers in NYC in the 90s—who cares?). Cohen may be one of the “important” writers under 40, as some have said, but who cares about that either?

Maybe it is good writing. Or to take a phrase from his book, maybe he is “the writer his generation deserves”.


 

  1. Joshua Cohen, Book of Numbers, New York, Random House, 2015.

 

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