A Religion of the Text

IN JOSHUA COHEN’s new novel The Book of Numbers, the owner of a lower-Manhattan bookstore is killed by the falling debris from the World Trade Center, and her store becomes — through the logic of the real estate market — “an unstaffed ATM vestibule lit and heated and airconditioned, simultaneously, perpetually.” What at first seems like a familiar joke about the banalification of New York becomes, as the image recurs, the haunting answer to the question of what will replace the book: a glowing screen and destabilizing flows of capital.

As Cohen commented in our recent telephone conversation, “This is a book about so many things. I wanted each review to seem like it was of a different book.” Book of Numbers lives up to that aim. It is about, among other things, the rise of the internet, the death of print, math, race, religion, sex, and mothers — and it still manages to take both the long historical view and a contemporary perspective on each of those topics. In emulation of its primary subject — the internet — the novel strives to contain the infinite in the same way a computer might, through permutations of binaries: Jewish-Muslim, East-West, men and women, and at its core, the “double” or the binary of two characters both named Joshua Cohen.

One Joshua Cohen, a failed novelist, is hired — amid a series of secretive non-disclosure agreements — to ghostwrite the memoir of the other Joshua Cohen (herein referred to as Principal), the CEO of Tetration, a mega company that is an amalgam of Google and Apple. The narrative moves from the debauched book party for Cohen’s holocaust novel, to Principal’s recounting of the birth of the internet — an account that reads like a satire of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. Then we cut to negotiations for a server farm in Abu Dhabi, a game of secrets with a Wikileaks-type organization. and onward to a climactic scene at the Frankfurt Book Fair — the publishing trade show held each year in the city where Gutenberg first brought his printed bibles to sell.

At 34, Cohen is the author of four novels, including the 800-page tome about Jewishness, Witz, two collections of short stories, and a book-length essay. He is also the new books critic for Harper’s and has contributed fiction to The New York Times, New York magazine, The London Review of Books, Bookforum, and elsewhere.

Taken together, Cohen’s short story collection Four New Messages, his book-length essay Attention!: A (Short) History, and now Book of Numbers make the argument that the replacement of print with digital — and its resulting tracking and monitoring of “users” as well as the monopolizing behemoth of Amazon — are not simply obstacles to contemporary literature but perhaps its most urgent subject, one with meanings and importance that echo beyond the page.


BEN BUSH: You’ve said that you picture your books as one ongoing project, that they could be linked end-to-end as one massive volume. How did your time spent writing about Judaism and the Holocaust in Witz inflect this novel about the death of print and the shift into digital text?

JOSHUA COHEN: One of the foundational principles of Judaism is that it is a religion of the text, of the book: “The people of the book” is the cliché. What happens to a people when books disappear? When you say “people of the book” to a Jewish person — if there are any, in 200 years, 600 years, a millennium — are they going to know what the book was? Not necessarily the codex, but the meaning that a book had in the culture? Additionally, I saw strategies that are very familiar to people who study the Talmud and Torah — the commentary, the re-commentary — laid bare and secularized by the internet.

In Book of Numbers, the character Joshua Cohen reviews a book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. In a profile at the time of Witz, you talked about wanting to put an end to Holocaust kitsch, to Holocaust novels with happy endings, and you cited Jonathan Safran Foer, Shalom Auslander, and Michael Chabon as possible examples of writers against whom you were writing, saying that “When I started this book, I wanted to sleep with their wives. By the time I finished, I wanted to sleep with their mothers.” What offended you about those authors and their work?

I don’t think those writers are particularly guilty of the enkitschment of the Holocaust. I think they are as guilty as the rest of the culture is. They’re fairly symptomatic.

I realized at a certain point as I was writing Book of Numbers that I was staging this enormous, very fancy, debauched book party for a novel based on the author’s mother’s survival of the Holocaust — a book that he had written without her consent. The book’s publication ends up being pre-empted by 9/11, by the specter of full-tilt Islamic terror, and the character is left sniveling with frustration over the book’s lack of commercial success — which to me, sounded like the least promising set-up for a book, which is why I decided to go with it.

In every culture that I can think of, there has been a regard for Jewry as a special people — not special in the sense that Jewry tends to think about itself as a “chosen people,” which tends to be more positive than in the sense of “chosen to be murdered” people — but there is this idea of a separateness or an apartness. This idea has since been coopted by the Christian right, and it has dovetailed “seamlessly” — to use a word from the book — into a right-wing agenda toward a resurrected crusades in the form of the so-called War on Terror.

I wanted to talk about what it means to feel so special that you forget that you are a person like everyone else, especially like people your nation is bombing or whose country your country is invading under false pretense. I was also thinking about the mode of martyrology, because the sufferings of the Holocaust occurred contemporaneously with a rise of large middle-brow culture in America and Europe, which the post-war prosperity was happy to package and market as a product. After anti-Semitism died away with the sixties, the sufferings of the Holocaust seemed to be a universal template for the sufferings of any people, not only the Jews. This idea of having provided a Platonic template of a people suffering that can then be transposed but only selectively — with Jews being the arbiters of who deserves that transposition — bothered me.

In Book of Numbers, you show the relation of religion to private space — the burkas in Abu Dhabi, a focus on mummies and entombment — and then the internet as this almost aggressive force that pulls everyone’s lives into public view. What did you see as the relationship between the internet as a hyper-public venue and religion as an often privately veiled space?

I was considering religion through the tradition of orthodoxy. All orthodoxies are the same in the sense that to live your life according to an orthodoxy is akin to having a full-time job: laws govern what you eat, what you wear, the people with whom you surround yourself and your conduct with them. Orthodoxy is meant to surround your life, to build a fence around it — “To build a fence around something” being a Talmudic phrasing meaning to protect and to honor it. Historically, in Judaism, the public eye is the disruptive eye. The eye that is always looking for something wrong.

We are seeing a number of secular orthodoxies creeping up. I am talking about the idea that it is necessary to remain anonymous, to remain private, at a time when to do so has, likewise, become akin to a full-time job. To observe the dietary laws of a religion is fundamentalism, but so too is staying off the grid, so too is attempting to remain illegible to commercial and governmental entities that want to make you legible, that want to know who you are, where and when you are, what you buy there, and what you say there. The rhyming of these fundamentalisms interested me.

I am fortunate in terms of these fundamentalisms — not only because I was not born a woman and have not chosen to live as a luddite — but I am fortunate for having my own tradition of obfuscation or obscurity, my own way of remaining cloaked or hidden, and that is through the metonymic properties of language: metaphor, simile, the idea of irony or sarcasm, challenging the reader to deduce whether or not I am being serious or humorous, challenging the reader to figure out whether the “I” in the prose is me or someone else or somewhere in the middle. Any of the classic rhetorical tools of language that get one away from direct address and basic declarative sentences is a form of hiding, of secreting meaning, of smuggling it in. This form of cloaking is not religious, not secular. I very much respond to this cloaking aspect of language, and I wanted to champion it, and, in that, I feel somewhat unpopular today among my peers.

There are some descriptions, especially in the first third of the book, which I found difficult to take in terms of race and gender, such as the narrator’s paranoiac tracking of Asians and his misogynistic descriptions of women, the Arab man beating his wife, another Arab man who threatens a prostitute with a dagger. This material, in part, butted up against my own beliefs, but I also had a hard time linking it to the book’s primary themes: the death of print, mathematics, the internet, etc. What was your intent with that kind of material?

There is this idea that the internet is an unparalleled communication device, a vast library, a global culture — when, of course, it is really a cesspool of porn and rage and race-baiting and the worst sorts of misogynistic and racist rhetoric.

Pointing to that contradiction functions as a key in two ways: One is that it relates to the surrendering of the victim narrative by the Jewish narrator — which is really the surrendering of the victim narrative of the Jewish people. It is a proposal to surrender this martyrology, this religion of the Holocaust — which I grew up with as much my religion as Judaism in terms of how peopledom was constructed.

In the conversation between the two Joshua Cohens on the beach in Dubai, Principal talks about white hegemony and what it means when white men stop running things. One of the keys to the book’s rhetoric around race is the final scene, which is just a succession of bloated white corpses, floating up on “darker” shores. The white men very much cannot let go, and I guess the joke is that this writer, the character Joshua Cohen — who has all the white male privilege in the world — still considers himself a failure and cannot let go of the idea that he is a victim. That is something I wanted speak of in a spiritual and theological way.

Regarding the narrator’s paranoiac tracking of Asians, a lot of the book, in a sense, enacts this trading of the Judeo-Christian system for an Eastern system, misunderstood by Western life, principally through a preoccupation with Buddhism and Hinduism and the analogy between the Samsara cycle, the cycle of reincarnation, and the idea of the soul being software and the body being hardware. The hardware gives out, but the software can be continually loaded onto newer and newer flesh machines until the soul is released. To me, this is not just about who will run things — who has the power and who has the money and who dictates terms — but is instead a fundamental philosophical and theological change.

The two main characters of your novel are both named Joshua Cohen. The internet — through Facebook, through googling ourselves, through mistaken email addresses — has made us all more aware of others with whom we share a name. How were you engaging with this question of a “double” with whom one vies for presence?

I am enormously lucky to live at a time when there is so little interest going on literarily in this world, that such a classic and ancient story as the “double” story — which has suddenly become imbedded in people’s lives so that everyone, at least everyone who is online, begins experiencing a double story as a daily dissociative experience — could be fresh and has not yet been fully exploited in this new way. It was an opportunity I could not pass up.

We can make our lists of “double” stories: Poe, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, and so on. This idea of the double is tied to the most ancient symbols of reflections in the water, in glass, in mirrors. Doubles stories have always been fascinating to me — not only in their Freudian interpretation, let’s say, or Otto Rank’s interpretation in which the double runs amok and can do all the things at night that the bourgeois employed enfamilied man can’t do during the day — Jekyll and Hyde — or the capitalist mode, at which Dostoyevsky is gesturing, in which the double is another you that can double your productivity and be more successful than you at work, but that ultimately might rebel against you — as if the double were the first robot and would deprive you of your employment along with your sanity. Along with such notions is one of the double as possibly the earliest, most basic form of imagining and experiencing one’s own death: committing suicide without committing suicide when you try to kill your double, so there can be just one version of you, but then you end up dead yourself. All of these ancient themes, which seemed very corny without this technological justification for their use, suddenly became available to me.

There is a lot of word play and puns in your writing. For you, how does that word play function in the work?

The screen is so much about the hand and the eye that you forget the mouth and the ear: the oral and the aural quality. They can encode other meanings that you do not get from just the eye with the hand following along. Sonic quality is interesting: words are meant to be heard. No one wants to hear you read out numbers.

In this book, I was thinking about how these long sequences of ones and zeros can be made to represent all knowledge. It is a remarkable system — a Sanskrit system, actually. But at the same time, we do not realize that language already has that system itself. Every word is already the collapse of all of the derivations and all the historical usages in which the word has been put. Every word contains the history of its usage — the history of the language from which it came. It contains the context that was prevalent in different regions in different areas in different times, and all of these things are contained in the word.

You learned computer code as part of the research for the book. What languages were you looking at and what did you find linguistically interesting about them?

I just brushed up on some things that I had known, basic stuff: HTML, a little bit of Java. I looked at Perl, Python, and a lot of the code that was around in early Apple software and some that has been used by Google. I learned what I always learn when I look at code, which is that I am a phenomenally inefficient writer and proud to be one.


Ben Bush is a Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.