Are you reading this on a screen?
Image from Second Life
Joshua Cohen (born 1980) is somewhat younger than Shteyngart and company. His 2015 novel, Book of Numbers, was the first of his books to appear in hardcover and to be brought out by a large publisher (Penguin Random House), but despite his relative youth, his is a lengthening bibliography: three novels, a novella, two collections of short fiction, and some less easily classifiable items. Prior to Book of Numbers, publishers of his work have ranged from small (Dalkey Archive) to very small (Twisted Spoon Press, Fugue State Press) to vanishingly small (The Cupboard, “a quarterly pamphlet of creative prose published in Lincoln, Nebraska”).
Reviewers of Book of Numbers typically pointed out its ambition and its timeliness. The ambition had been discernible in Cohen’s work all along, in the stretching of novelistic form, in the gymnastics of his sentences, and in the demands he made of his readers. The timeliness, though, marks a departure. Book of Numbers reads as the confessions, notes, drafts, and disjecta membra of one Joshua Cohen, a novelist (but with a birth year and a bibliography quite different from the author’s) who has landed the job of ghostwriter for a different Joshua Cohen, this one an Internet billionaire along Zuckerberg-Page-Brin lines. A thrillerlike plot gradually burbles up around a character resembling Julian Assange and revelations akin to those made by Edward Snowden—hence the timeliness. The heart of the novel, though, lies in the encounter between the novelist Joshua Cohen, devoted to ink and paper (“If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off,” the book opens), and the tech-savvy, geek-speaking cyber pioneer with whom he shares a name.
In the Torah, the Book of Numbers tells of what became of the Israelites between Sinai and entering Canaan; its namesake novel gives us a Joshua Cohen who has entered the Promised Land and a Joshua Cohen who is dying in the wilderness. In hundreds of ways, Cohen’s novel makes us ask, what Promised Land is this, what wilderness? (That its climactic scene is at the Frankfurt Book Fair is all too perfect.)
This allusion to Jewish history and the traces of Yiddishkeit that adhere to both Joshua Cohens carry forward in Book of Numbers what had been a defining characteristic in Cohen’s earlier books: his incorporating an extraordinary amount of Jewish learning, history, and culture into his fiction, especially in his two full-length novels, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto (2007) and Witz (2010). And like Book of Numbers, those novels are for a patient, attentive reader.