Jewish books: Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers is a high tech epic
What happens when a down on his luck luddite novelist is hired to ghostwrite a memoir by a math whiz tech mogul who shares his (and the author of this novel’s) name? That’s the basic premise of Joshua Cohen’s novel Book of Numberswhich was published last month by Random House.
My New York Journal of Books review opens by comparingBook of Numbers’ many allegorical layers to three dimensional chess. The novel is divided into three sections. The first and last feature the ghostwriter who is also the narrator, while in the middle section the tech mogul who calls himself Principal narrates his life story and that of his company to his ghostwriter.
There is a division of opinion among critics as to whose story and which section(s) of the novel is/are more compelling, including between The New York Times’ daily and Sundaybook reviewers. I side with those reviewers who favor the ghostwriter and his sections of the novel. The fictional novelist is more emotionally complex, whereas Principal is an obsessive compulsive, anal retentive, high functioning autistic person whose narrative doesn’t reveal much of an inner life.
One detail many book critics get wrong is the name of the ghostwriter's wife. Early in the novel she is introduced as Rachava and is referred to thereafter as Rach. Numerous critics assume Rach is short for Rachel, but they're wrong; Rach (rhymes with Bach) is short for Rachava.
In interviews in Bomb Magazine and Vice Cohen revealed that to mimic Principal’s obsessive compulsive fixation on numbers each section of the book has an even number of paragraphs in which each paragraph contains an even number of sentences in honor of computer languages’ base 2 binary code and the base 4 employed by search engines .
His ghostwriter, on the other hand reveals himself to be a word maven with a vocabulary exponentially richer than even Norman Mailer’s. When I read Mailer I have to look up a new word every second or third page. For the first 90 or so pages of Book of Numbers I had to look up two or three new words on every page! So is he just showing off? More often than not after looking up the word and then rereading the sentence in which it appears it turns out that the word in question is indeed le mot juste.
The fictional novelist also has a very high degree of Jewish literacy and is authentically comfortable in his Jewishness. That and the fact that like me he writes book reviews and has translated from Hebrew to English makes me predisposed to like him, though that is tempered by his clueless ambivalence towards women.
At close to 600 pages of dense prose Book of Numbers is not light reading. I close my NYJB review by recommending it to “readers as ambitious as it is.” For a fuller discussion of the novel see that review.