The man who just published one of the best novels ever written about the Internet has spent less time online than almost anyone else his age. After graduating from college in 2001, Joshua Cohen lived in Eastern Europe for six years, writing fiction, filing overseas dispatches for The Jewish Daily Forward and generally avoiding the Web — he didn’t even have a dial-up connection. When Cohen returned to New York in 2007, everyone suddenly had smartphones and Facebook accounts. He found the Web’s unrelenting creep so unnerving that he considered going back to Europe. “I realized I didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket,” says Cohen, 34, drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes at a bar near his home in Red Hook, Brooklyn, one recent afternoon, “and I had shipped all my stuff home on a boat.”
Cohen still avoids social media, and his wariness of the Web suffuses Book of Numbers, about a failed novelist-turned-ghostwriter named Joshua Cohen who’s working on the memoirs of another Joshua Cohen, the founder of a Google-like company called Tetration. (Cohen himself worked as a ghostwriter for two Holocaust survivors.)
The novel wears its postmodernism lightly. It’s a page turner about life under the veil of digital surveillance, complete with a plotline about Tetration helping the government spy on citizens. Cohen came up with that idea even before Edward Snowden made headlines. If WikiLeaks allowed citizens to see what the government was up to, Cohen reasoned, the government can also see everything we do. “It’s a law of the Internet,” Cohen says. “Transparency cuts both ways.”
For the Tetration founder, who’s referred to as “Principal” by his ghostwriter, Cohen invented a frequently hilarious voice full of Web-friendly slang: “msg,” “brogrammer,” “algy” for algorithm. “I took a little piece of Jobs, took a little piece of Bezos, took a little piece of Zuckerberg,” Cohen says.
With a signature pair of thin-rimmed round glasses and a tendency to speak in numerically ordered bullet points, Cohen sometimes comes off like a particularly devout tech CEO, despite a pedigree that would suggest anything but. He grew up in Atlantic City and got a degree in composition from the Manhattan School of Music before heading abroad. Cohen’s early fiction touched on creative frustration and religious conflict, as well as his dark view of the Web: In one short story, a journalist investigates the lives of his favorite porn stars, only to discover they’re somehow less real in person than onscreen.
At its heart, Book of Numbers is an attempt to reclaim a sense of humanity in the digital age, as the Internet becomes less an anonymous playground and more a tool for the surveillance state. “We’re still the generation that realizes that it’s a transition,” he says. “The next doesn’t even think it’s a change.”