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NATIONAL BESTSELLER •“More impressive than all but a few novels published so far this decade . . . a wheeling meditation on the wired life, on privacy, on what being human in the age of binary code might mean . . . [Joshua] Cohen, all of thirty-four, emerges as a major American writer.”—The New York Times NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY VULTURE AND ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BYNPR AND THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
“Book of Numbers . . . is shatteringly powerful. I cannot think of anything by anyone in [Cohen’s] generation that is so frighteningly relevant and composed with such continuous eloquence. There are moments in it that seem to transcend our impasse.”—Harold Bloom
The enigmatic billionaire founder of Tetration, the world’s most powerful tech company, hires a failed novelist, Josh Cohen, to ghostwrite his memoirs. The mogul, known as Principal, brings Josh behind the digital veil, tracing the rise of Tetration, which started in the earliest days of the Internet by revolutionizing the search engine before venturing into smartphones, computers, and the surveillance of American citizens. Principal takes Josh on a mind-bending world tour from Palo Alto to Dubai and beyond, initiating him into the secret pretext of the autobiography project and the life-or-death stakes that surround its publication.
Insider tech exposé, leaked memoir-in-progress, international thriller, family drama, sex comedy, and biblical allegory, Book of Numbers renders the full range of modern experience both online and off. Embodying the Internet in its language, it finds the humanity underlying the virtual.
Featuring one of the most unforgettable characters in contemporary fiction, Book of Numbers is an epic of the digital age, a triumph of a new generation of writers, and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.
Praise for Book of Numbers
“The Great American Internet Novel is here. . . . Book of Numbers is a fascinating look at the dark heart of the Web. . . . A page-turner about life under the veil of digital surveillance . . . one of the best novels ever written about the Internet.”—Rolling Stone
“A startlingly talented novelist.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Remarkable . . . dazzling . . . Cohen’s literary gifts . . . suggest that something is possible, that something still might be done to safeguard whatever it is that makes us human.”—Francine Prose, The New York Review of Books
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Book of Numbers
8/27? 28? two days before end of Ramadan
If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands.
Paper of pulp, covers of board and cloth, the thread from threadstuff or—what are bindings made of? hair and plant fibers, glue from boiled horsehooves?
The paperback was compromise enough. And that’s what I’ve become: paper spine, paper limbs, brain of cheapo crumpled paper, the final type that publishers used before surrendering to the touch displays, that bad thin four-times-deinked recycled crap, 100% acidfree postconsumer waste.
I have very few books with me here—Hitler’s Secretary: A Firsthand Account, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, whatever was on the sales table at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, and in the langues anglais section of the FNAC on the Rue de Rennes—books I’m using as models, paragons of what to avoid.
I’m writing a memoir, of course—half bio, half autobio, it feels—I’m writing the memoir of a man not me.
It begins in a resort, a suite.
I’m holed up here, blackout shades downed, drowned in loud media, all to keep from having to deal with yet another country outside the window.
If I’d kept the eyemask and earplugs from the jet, I wouldn’t even have to describe this, there’s nothing worse than description: hotel room prose. No, characterization is worse. No, dialogue is. Suffice it to say that these pillows are each the size of the bed I used to share in NY. Anyway this isn’t quite a hotel. It’s a cemetery for people both deceased and on vacation, who still check in daily with work.
As for yours truly, I’ve been sitting with my laptop atop a pillow on my lap to keep those wireless hotspot waveparticles from reaching my genitals and frying my sperm, searching up—with my employer’s technology—myself, and Rach.
My wife, my ex, my “x2b.”
Living by the check, by the log—living remotely, capitalhopping, skipping borders, jumping timezones, yet always with that equatorial chain of blinking beeping messages to maintain, what Principal calls “the conversation”—it gets lonely.
For the both of us.
Making tours of the local offices, or just of overpriced museums to live in. Claridge’s, Hôtel de Crillon. Meeting with British staff to discuss removing the UK Only option from the homepage. Meeting French staff to discuss the .Fr launch of Autotet. Granting angel audiences to the CEOs of Yalp and Ilinx. Being pitched, but not catching, a new parkour exergame and a betting app for fantasy rugby.
This was micromanaging, microminimanaging. Nondelegation, demotion (voluntary), absorption of duties (insourcing), dirtytasking. All of them at once. In the lexicon of the prevailing techsperanto.
This was Principal spun like a boson just trying to keep it, keep everything, together.
At least until Europe was behind us and we could stay ensuite, he could stay seated, in interviews with me. Between the naps, interviewing for me.
You call the person you’re writing “the principal” and mine is basically the internet, the web—that’s how he’s positioned, that’s how he’s converged: the man who helped to invent the thing, rather the man who helped it to invent us, in the process shredding the hell out of the paper I’ve dedicated my life to. Though don’t for a moment assume he regards it as, what? ironic or wry? that now, at our mutual attainment of 40 (his birthday just behind him, mine just ahead), he’s feeling the urge to put his life down in writing, into writing on paper.
He has no time for irony or wryness. He has time for only himself.
cant wait 4 wknd, Rach updates.
margaritas tonite #maryslaw
ever time i type divorce i type deforce (still trying 2 serve papers)
read that my weights the same as hers—feelingood til the reveal: shes 2 inches taller—ewwww!!
“She” who was two inches taller was a model, and though Rach’s in advertising I never expected her to be just as public, to enjoy such projections.
To be sure, she enjoys them anonymously.
My last stretch in NY I’d been searching “Rachava Cohen-Binder,” finding the purest professionalism—her profile at her agency’s site—searching “Rachava Binder,” getting inundated with comments she’d left on a piece of mine (“Journalism Criticizing the Web, Popular on the Web,” The New York Times). It was only in Palo Alto that I searched “Rachav Binder” and “Rach Binder,” got an undousable flame of her defense of an article of mine critical of the Mormon Church’s databasing of Holocaust victims in order to speed their posthumous conversions (“Net Costs,” The Atlantic), and finally it was either in London or Paris, I forget, because I was trashed, that I, on a trashy whim, searched “Teva Café Detroit MI,” but the results suggested I’d meant “Tevazu Café Detroit MI”—cyber chastisement for having incorrectly spelled the place where I’d proposed with ring on bended knee.
One site—and one site alone—had made that same spelling mistake, though, and when I clicked through I found others even graver:
a-bintel-b was a blog, hosted by a platform developed by my employer, which is more famous for having developed the search engine—the one everyone uses to find everyone else, movie times, how to fix my TV tutorials, is this herpes? how much does Gisele Bündchen weigh?
Though her accounts lack facts—and Majuscules, and punctuation—I haven’t been able to stop reading, can’t stop reminding myself that what I read was written in my, in our, apartment. Between the walls, which have been redone a univeige, a cosmic latte shade—the floors have similarly been buffed of my traces.
I wasn’t ready to get reacquainted with the old young flirty Rach. Not on this blog, which she began in the summer, just after we severed, and especially not while I was estranged abroad, in London, Paris, Dubai as of this morning—if it’s Sunday it must be Dubai—with Principal negotiating the dunespace for a datacenter.
Remember that old joke, let’s set it in an airport, at the security checkpoint, when a guard asks to inspect a bag, opens the bag, and removes from it a suspicious book.
“What’s it about?” he asks.
And the passenger answers, “About 500 pages!!!!”
Contracted as of two weeks ago, due in four months. Simultaneous hardcover release in six languages, 100,000 announced first printing (US), my name nowhere on it, in a sense.
As of now all I have is its title, which is also the name of its author, which is also the name of his ghost.
Me, my own.
Though my contract with Principal has a confidentiality clause—beyond that, a clause that forbids my mentioning our confidentiality clause, another barring me from disclosing that, and yet another barring me from going online, I assume for life—I can’t help myself (Rach and I might still have a thing or two in common):
I, Joshua Cohen, am writing the memoir of the Joshua Cohen I’m always mistaken for—the incorrect JC, the error msg J. The man whose business has ruined my business, whose pleasure has ruined my pleasure, whose name has obliviated my own.
Did you mean Joshua Cohen? The genius, googolionaire, Founder and CEO of Tetration.com, as of now—datestamped 8/27, timecoded 22:12 Central European Summer Time—hits #1 through #324 for “Joshua Cohen” on Tetration.com.
Or Joshua Cohen? The failed novelist, poet, husband and son, pro journalist, speechwriter and ghostwriter, as of now—datestamped 8/28, timecoded 00:14 Gulf Standard Time—hit #325 “my” highest ranking on Tetration.com.
#325 mentions my first book—the book I’m writing this book, my last, to forget. The book that everyone but me already buried. Also I’m trying to earn better money, this time, at the expense of identity. Rach, my support, had been keeping me in both.
But it was only after my session with Principal today—two Joshes just joshing around in the Emirates—that I decided to write this.
Coming back from Principal’s orchidaceous suite to my own chandeliered crèmefest of an accommodation, alive with talk and perked on caffeines, I realized that the only record of my one life would be this record of another’s. That as the wrong JC it was up to me and only me to tell them to stop—to tell Rach to stop searching for her husband (I’m here), to tell my mother to stop searching for her son (I’m here), to send my regrets to you both and remember you, Dad—I’m hoping to get together, all on the same page.
10 years ago this September, 10 Arab Muslims hijacked two airplanes and flew them into the Twin Towers of my Life & Book. My book was destroyed—my life has never recovered.
And so it was, the End before the beginning: two jets fueled with total strangers, terrorists—two of whom were Emirati—bombing my career, bombing me personally. And now let me debunk all the conspiracies: George W. Bush didn’t have the towers taken down with controlled demolitions, the FAA didn’t take its satellites offline to let the jets fly over NY airspace unimpeded, the Israeli government didn’t withhold intel about what was going to happen (all just to have a pretext for another Gulf War), and as for the theory that no Jews died or were even harmed in the attacks—what am I? what was this?
That day was my final page, my last word, ellipses . . . ellipses . . . period—closing the covers on all my writing, all my rewriting, all my investments of all the money my father had left me and my mother had loaned me in travel, computer equipment/support, translation help, and research materials (Moms never let me repay my loans).
I’d worried for months, fretted for years, checked thesauri and dictionaries for other verbs I could do, I’d paced. I couldn’t sleep or wake, fantasized best, worst, and average case scenarios. Working on a book had been like being pregnant, or like planning an invasion of Poland. To write it I’d taken a parttime job in a bookstore, I’d taken off from my parttime job in the bookstore, I’d lived cheaply in Ridgewood and avoided my friends, I’d been avoided by friends, procrastinated by spending noons at the Battery squatting alone on a boulder across from a beautiful young paleskinned blackhaired mother rocking a stroller back and forth with a fetish boot while she read a book I pretended was mine, hoping that her baby stayed sleeping forever or at least until I’d finished the thing its mother was reading—I’d been finishing it forever—I’d just finished it, I’d just finished and handed it in.
I handed it to my agent, Aaron, who read it and loved it and handed it to my editor, Finnity, who read it and if he didn’t love it at least accepted it and cut a check the size of a page—which he posted to Aar who took his percentage before he posted the remainder to me—before he, Finnity, scheduled the publication for “the holidays” (Christmas), which in the publishing industry means scheduled for a season before “the holidays” (Christmas), to be set out front in the fall at whatever nonchain bookstores were at the time being replaced by chain bookstores about to be replaced by your preferred online retailer. The book, my book, to be stuffed into a stocking hanging so close to the fire that it would burn before anyone had the chance to read it, which was, essentially, what happened.
Every September the city has that nervy crisp air, that new season briskness: new films in the theaters where after a season of explosions serious black and white actors have sex against the odds and subplot of a crumbling apartheid regime, the new concert season led by exciting new conductors with wild floppy hair and big capped teeth premiering new repertoire featuring the debuts of exciting new soloists of obscure nationalities (an Ashkenazi/Bangladeshi pianist accompanying a fiery redheaded Indonesian violinist in Fiddler on the Hurūf), new galleries with new exhibitions of unwieldy mixedmedia installations (Climate Change Up: a cloud seeded with ballot chad), new choreography on new themes (La danse des tranches, ou pas de derivatives), new plays on and off Broadway featuring TV actresses seeking stage cred to relaunch careers playing characters dying of AIDS or dyslexia.
September’s also the time of new books coming out, of publication parties held at new lounges, new venues. Which was why on that freefloating Monday after Labor Day, with the city returned to itself rested and tanned, my publisher gathered my friends, frenemies, writers, in the type of emerging neighborhood that magazines and newspapers were always underpaying them to christen.
Understand, on my first visits to NY the Village had just been split between East and West. SoHo went, so there had to be NoHo. When I first moved to the city the realestate pricks were scamming the editors into helping reconfigure the outerboroughs too, turning Brooklyn, flipping Queens, for zilch in return, only the displacement of minorities despite their majority. At the time of my party, Silicon Alley had just been projected along Broadway, in glassed steel atop the Flatiron—each new shadow of each new tower being foreshadowed initially in language (sarcastic language).
Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.