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the complete review - fiction
Book of Numbers
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B+ : appealing world wide (web) sprawl, but can barely contain itself
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The NY Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|Wall St. Journal
|The Washington Post
From the Reviews:
- "(I)tís hard to quibble at the prose level with real-life Cohenís monstrous talent and restive, roiling intellect. Heís swinging for the bleachers where, at the top of the stands, Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, and Wallace hover above the field in their skybox. (...) 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" - Andrew Hultkrans, Bookforum
- "Mr Cohenís writing is sure and often deliriously entertaining. (...) (T)he plot is not the point. Mr Cohen is more interested in big ideas and punchy sentences than the mechanics of storytelling." - The Economist
- "Cohenís latest project seems less a book, in fact, than a genizah: that room in a synagogue where worn-out Hebrew books are stored. The reader does not so much read as actively sift these fragments and uncompleted stories, co-creating a narrative that is voluble, inventive, often exasperating, sometimes rewarding. (...) At his best, Cohen fashions some beautiful poetry out of tech-soused outpourings. But a tendency to dazzle rather than illuminate sometimes makes his bookís humanity hard to discern." - Julius Purcell, Financial Times
- "(T)his is mainly the story of a procession of styles. (...) Yet periodically, just as you are writing the whole thing off, there is a flash of real mischief or sardonic humour. (...) Cohen certainly can write. And an editor who had the time might have found the decent shorter novel buried somewhere within these pages." - Steven Poole, The Guardian
- "Hyper-erudition doesn't always make for engaging fiction but Cohen is intensely perceptive and the scintillating music of his prose befits reading aloud. (...) (O)n the whole, I say: whatever you're reading this on, get yourself a copy of Book of Numbers and enjoy." - Max Liu, The Independent
- "Repurposing language is Joshua Cohenís greatest strength. (...) 600 frequently maddening pages" - Philip Maughan, New Statesman
- "Alive with talk and dense with data, Joshua Cohenís novel Book of Numbers reads as if Philip Rothís work were fired into David Foster Wallaceís inside the Hadron particle collider. The result is a mess, a debris field, an insult to the sublime. Yet the splintered intellection hums with the static of the cosmos. Book of Numbers, in its fractured way, is more impressive than all but a few novels published so far this decade. (...) These horse latitudes, where Book of Numbers drifts for too long, prevent this from being a great novel. The book isnít cold, yet it never finds an emotional tone to match its intellectual one." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times
- "(I)ts breadth, the ambition of its ideas and devices, confounds standard book review responses. Trying to approach this ≠demanding, overstuffed novel is a bit like hyperlinking oneís way around the Internet: Itís bigger, wilder and fuller than you imagined, and thereís always more where that came from. (...) Cohen takes obvious delight bending the language as far as it will go. Sometimes it breaks, but these are noble failures. (...) As God tests the endurance and faith of the Israelites, Cohen will test the commitment of his readers." - Mark Sarvas, The New York Times Book Review
- "It is insanely self-indulgent but that is, of course, the point. (...) Ultimately, it is hard not to feel that the final product is less than the sum of its multilayered parts, and that this is little more than a retread of the works of Williams Gibson and Self. Still, for chutzpah alone, Cohenís chaotic fantasia certainly impresses." - Alexander Larman, The Observer
- "A dense, thrilling, and occasionally perplexing work, Cohen's encyclopedic epic is about many things -- language, art, divinity, narrative, desire, global politics, surveillance, consumerism, genealogy -- but it is above all a standout novel about the Internet" - Publishers Weekly
- "For all that Cohen demonstrates the threats now facing the novelist in Book of Numbers, he also responds triumphantly to these post- literate times, reiterating the novelís capacity to absorb new technologies and counter the ways in which they externalize and alienate. (...) Yet it is in its fidelity to tradition that Book of Numbers poses its greatest challenge. " - , Times Literary Supplement
- "The novelís main challenge and source of excitement can be found in its language. (...) (I)n a deeper sense this story reprises the rocky transformation of a small tribe of true believers into the compromised rulers of a mighty nation. It is resonantly fraught with idealism and betrayal, moral struggle, and the worship of the golden calf of commerce." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
- "Reading Book of Numbers is like trying to concentrate on an online article that keeps being interrupted by flashing ads, exhortations to click below the jump -- and then the Web browser freezes or you lose the thread because youíre distracted by a video about the touching rescue of a horribly abused pit bull. If you think this is an interesting reading experience -- that Cohen has replicated the manic confusion of trying to produce literature in the digital age -- then you may well enjoy Book of Numbers." - Lisa Zeidner, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Much of Book of Numbers is narrated by 'Joshua Cohen', a would-be author whose dreams were crushed by the events of 11 September 2001 -- "My book was destroyed -- my life has never recovered" -- as the inauspiciously-timed release date of his debut left it essentially unnoticed ("all of two reviews"), with even the planned 2002 paperback release canceled.
[The book's Joshua Cohen is actually older than real-author Joshua Cohen (the former born 1971, the latter in 1980 -- too young for the necessary experience he's looking for in his novel (though a considerably more successful author, despite the later start)).]
Completing the identity-confusion, the gist of Book of Numbers is that narrator-Jonathan Cohen is hired to ghost the memoir of one (other) Joshua Cohen -- who is the same age, but has achieved considerably more renown: "genius, googolionaire, Founder and CEO of Tetration.com".
Helpfully, the memoir-subject is generally referred to as 'Principal', and speaks (of himself) distinguishingly in the first-person plural, so there's not much actual Joshua Cohen-identity-confusion in the book; nevertheless the three facets of the same name loom large over the novel.
Tetration is a Google-like company, which developed much as (and when) Google did, complete with Stanford-connection and search-engine focus.
Sure, in the present-day: "Tetration has 12 resident beekeepers, four affineurs, two ongoing emoji valency experiments, and a lab dedicated solely to honing a 3D printer that itself can be 3D printed", but it struggled in defining itself and attracting interest (and, especially, money) in the early days of the world wide web, when the near-universal reaction to their search-focused ambitions was: "Profitability implausible".
Joshua Cohen/Principal relates much of the history of the company -- and the science and the business to it -- to Joshua Cohen/ghostwriter, the material from which he is to shape the memoir -- allowing for a sharp, fast overview of the changing web (and world) over the past two decades, from start-up stories to more sinister government surveillance infiltration of every- and anything moving that passes online.
Joshua Cohen/Principal's is hardly a universal story, but in his insistence on telling his story in the first-person-plural both distances himself from himself -- it becomes a de-intimated confessional -- while inclusively (all this 'we') drawing his audience -- and specifically the other Joshua Cohen -- in.
The ghostwriter doesn't come to inhabit Principal like some über- (or over-layered) alter ego, but Principal's account is also literally his own undoing, and by the end even his continued existence is in doubt (while the ghostwriter is still more than a shadow of himself, but not much).
That the project didn't work out exactly as planned is clear also from the book in hand, an amalgam of the ghostwriter's notes, commentary, and draft-sections of this memoir work-for-hire, along with transcripts of Principal's life-story, as well as stray e-mails and other texts; what went wrong is part of the story -- with much (such as why Principal is incapable of writing his own memoir) only revealed well into the novel.
Book of Numbers strives to convey a sense of authorial authenticity, vis-à-vis all its authors and voices, from the misspellings in the e-mails addressed to the ghostwriter to Principal's near-monologues of material that ghostwriter is then supposed to shape into memoir.
And even some of that shaping is revealed both verbatim and in process -- ghostwriter's efforts presented, for example, as:
Much of Principal's own account is conversational-dense in style -- literally information-packed, taking for granted that the audience can fill in the gaps, or fill out the abbreviations (sort of like -- if on a much larger and more elaborate scale -- text-message text): it's not just because Joshua Cohen/ghostwriter is on deadline that much of Book of Numbers feels almost breathlessly rushed.
(Impressively, even at its most expansive -- as in the amusing and ridiculously verbose e-mails sent to the ghostwriter by his wife's new actor-companion -- there's an omnipresent sense of urgency and time-limits -- in some cases, as it turns out, for good reason.)
To begin is how to begin, for the writer and reader both.
The first sentence sets the rules, the laws, the measures, sentencing the second to its fate.
Among Principal's boyhood ambitions were the creation of a fundamental language -- leading him to a reductio not quite ad absurdum of: "an alphabet of a single letter" (a versatile W).
Languages -- computer and human -- are central both in the story and its telling, with Book of Numbers focused both on the basic, binary (the three sections of the novel are headed: "1", "0" "1") and spoken and written languages (annoying young pre-Principal because they have to resort to: "metonymy, analogy, simile, metaphor").
Typically, the woman Joshua Cohen/ghostwriter falls for is one with whom he can barely communicate, as the only language they share is a French neither of them has much command over.
Much of Book of Numbers is a chronicle of the Internet-age, covered from code-basics to all aspects of Internet corporate culture (from financing to governance) to some of the social and political ramifications.
A WikiLeaks-like organization also comes to play a prominent role, as does what turns out to be all-pervasive government surveillance, as Book of Numbers has more than just a bit of the jet-setting thriller to it to (with exciting locales ranging from Dubai to the Frankfurt Book Fair).
Yet while Principal refers to his mom and dad as "M-Unit" and "D-Unit" and the ghostwriter's marriage tips over the final breaking point, family figures here too -- significant presences.
Ostensibly unattached -- Principal does have a devoted assistant and the ghostwriter is still married (and occasionally sleeps around), but essentially with this project they join in mutual and then individual isolation -- the maternal figures, even as they live very much in their own worlds, in particular, remain a connection to the real world-at-large.
Beyond that, loss overshadows much: dead fathers, and forebears lost in the Holocaust; the brilliant engineer (of shadowy identity: "Vishnu Vaidya, Vishnu Fernandes, Muwekma Ohlone -- Moe") who leaves his mark on Tetration; and others, too.
Book of Numbers careens wildly about.
Presented with its rough edges literally showing -- in crossed-out text and its jumps back and forth between various personal and public records -- it struggles to contain all its material.
The rushed desperation underlying so much of the narrative -- bursting at the seams with stories desperate to get out (and the forces that try to contain them) -- gives it the kind of edge that draws readers in -- but can also prove tiring.
It's all pulled off with considerable stylish flair, too, -- but that's also take-your-breath-away exhausting.
From the convincing account of the behind-the-scenes Internet world, down to the algorithms and their tweaking as well as all the corporate culture, and to discursions on writing, language, history, religion, and, of course, identity, Book of Numbers is crammed with matter.
It's a grand heap of a book -- all too much, in too many respects, yet certainly rewarding.
- M.A.Orthofer, 26 May 2015
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Book of Numbers:
Other books by Joshua Cohen under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary American fiction
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About the Author:
American author Joshua Cohen was born in 1980.
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© 2015-2021 the complete review
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