Book of numbers by Joshua Cohen, book review: A coded attack on digital culture

Cohen uses blogs, emails, and ghostwritten autobiography to tell a topical story

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The opening sentence of Joshua Cohen's epic novel about internet technology, surveillance and literature will be much-quoted: "If you're reading this on a screen, fuck off." Book of Numbers uses blog posts, emails, ghostwritten autobiography and other contemporary forms to tell a topical story. Cohen's publisher is hailing it as his "breakout novel", a description which would make its narrator sneer. A thirtysomething former literary wunderkind, by the time we meet the narrator, who's also named "Joshua Cohen", he's reduced to writing ads and, ahem, reviewing books for a living.

Those occupations don't scream "loser" to me but they might to the real Cohen, whose achievements include the novel Witz (2010), an acclaimed story collection and a book-length essay on attention. He knows about maths, "compsci" and many more subjects which didn't interest novelists until a group of polymath postmodernists – David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers among them – became influential in the late 1990s. Hyper-erudition doesn't always make for engaging fiction but Cohen is intensely perceptive and the scintillating music of his prose befits reading aloud.

At the outset, the narrator describes his upbringing in New Jersey, the commercial failure of his novel, which was based on his mother's escape from Nazi-occupied Poland and overshadowed by 9/11, and his subsequent ennui. He's getting a divorce when his agent offers him a lucrative assignment: a third "Joshua Cohen", this one the billionaire founder of search engine "Tetration", wants the narrator to ghostwrite his autobiography. The narrator accepts and begins referring to this third Cohen as "Principal".

At Principal's 40th birthday party in Palo Alto, the narrator looks on as waitresses serve gluten-free cake with "sustainable beeswax candles" and lecture guests about conservation. Later, "googolinaires" retreat to Japan to talk cyber-zen tosh but, although this is entertaining, a stylist as assured as Cohen sounds like he's writing on autopilot when skewering such explicit bullshit. The tone is more nuanced when the action moves to Dubai, where the narrator stops a Yemeni businessman from beating his veiled wife, then has an affair with her.

Extracts from Principal's autobiography comprise the novel's bravura 300-odd page middle. Tetration's links to government intelligence are illuminated but the process of erasure is also examined in passages which appear with a line through them. Does the printed word represent mankind's best bid for permanence? Perhaps, but the novel's title refers to the ubiquity of numbers, how they're configured in internet codes and used to signal the scale of atrocities, principally the Holocaust, which dominates the narrator's imagination.

At the Frankfurt Book Festival – a detour which will amuse publishers who've attended said jamboree and frustrate readers who haven't – the narrator acquires a manuscript and admits "doing that guiltily-flip-ahead-to-gauge-how-many-pages-are -in-the-chapter thing." I occasionally did this while reading Cohen but, on the whole, I say: whatever you're reading this on, get yourself a copy of Book of Numbers and enjoy.

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