cover image Book of Numbers

Book of Numbers

Joshua Cohen. Random, $28 (608p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9691-3

Like Pynchon's Bleeding Edge and Eggers's The Circle, Cohen's (Witz) latest is an ambitious and inspired attempt at the Great American Internet Novel. The narrator, Joshua Cohen, is a struggling writer whose debut effort was inauspiciously launched on Sept. 10, 2001. Deciding to "earn better money... at the expense of identity," he agrees to ghostwrite the memoir of another Joshua Cohen, referred to as "Principal." Principal is the secretive founder of Tetration, a tech company that has developed a revolutionary search engine and seeks to "equalize ourselves with data and data with ourselves." Speaking to his ghostwriter in the first-person plural he leisurely relates the genesis and evolution of Tetration while sprinkling in a mixture of ominous epigrams ("All who read us are read"), mystical musings, and "techsperanto," the language of Silicon Valley. But Principal has another motive in sharing his story, one that forces his biographer to go into hiding, and offline, to complete his task. The novel maps the recent history of the Internet onto one of Western culture's oldest stories, the plague-filled wanderings of Moses and his fractious band of Israelites journeying toward the Promised Land. This allegorical element imposes just enough order on a saga as sprawling and unruly as the Web. 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, humanity's "first mutual culture," in which our identities are increasingly defined by a series of ones and zeroes. (June)