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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Book of Numbers: An Intermess

There hasn't been a novel released this year I thought would be more in my wheelhouse than Joshua Cohen's "Great Internet Novel," Book of Numbers. If not just for the breathless comparisons of Cohen to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon (though Cohen himself called this idea "good publicity, bad criticism"), than also because it's a 600-page post-modern tome about technology, the internet, and a struggling, smart ass, nearly nihilistic writer named Joshua Cohen.

I almost didn't make it. To be sure, it's a cleverly written, inventive, often funny novel, but mostly it's too clever, inventive, and funny by half. My literary hero, DFW, often talked about the proportion of reader aggravation to reader enjoyment in his stories, and admitted that in some of his work the former outranked the latter, making for bad fiction. This is the case here as well. Each sentence is littered with portmanteau, neologism, Internet-speak (which may or may not be invented), Hindu gods and theology, purposeful and annoying misspellings ("figgered" for figured, "sessh" for session, etc.), etc., etc. If that's your thing, cool. But it got to be really, really irritating after awhile — it took forever to read this novel because you can't just sit down and blow through 50 pages in an hour or whatever. To get, you have to slow down and digest. (But judging by the Goodreads reviews, most readers didn't have the patience and gave up well before the end.)

But finish it, I did. And here's the deal: A writer named Joshua Cohen is hired to ghost write the autobiography of the billionaire founder of a Google-like company called Tetration (a math term), also named Joshua Cohen. The novel's in three parts — the first and third about writer Cohen's misadventures: publishing a novel on 9/11 that was quickly forgotten, marital trouble, and then connecting with the other Cohen (who goes by "Principal") to interview him in California, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. The middle part of the novel is a sort of draft version of that ghostwritten autobiography, showing us how Cohen grew up, founded the company, hired a goofy engineer named Moe, etc., etc. If you know the Google origin story, not much here (except for the Big Reveal) is all that original or even interesting (again, except for the Big Reveal...but even the way Cohen writes this section leaves us a bit confused). The good thing about this structural approach is that when you've just about had all you can take with one section, we totally switch gears to another and move on.

"(Clearly Very Talented Writer) is going to blow us away with a novel someday soon, but this isn't it," is one those things readers/bloggers/reviewers say when they didn't like a novel, but want to give the writer credit. It's a cop-out, for sure. But I think it's apt here. The talent is undeniable. Cohen just needs to harness it.


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