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The Joshua Cohen Interview

Published in Issue 53

The following interview is drawn from three long conversations with Joshua Cohen over the course of two months in early 2018—in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Hanover, Germany. Only the first two of these cities feature in Cohen’s fourth novel, Book of Numbers (2015), a novel that channels the voices of (at least) three Joshua Cohens: first, Joshua Cohen, a failed New York novelist turned ghostwriter who profits from the culture that is out to outlaw him, the exploding internet culture of the early years of this young millennium; second, Joshua Cohen, a tech billionaire—referred to as “the Principal” by his staff—whose inventions have shaped internet culture and who has commissioned a memoir about his life to be ghostwritten by his namesake; third, Joshua Cohen, the writer of Book of Numbers. In order to ghostwrite his memoir Print-Cohen interviews Web-Cohen across a number of “Palo Alto sessions,” the transcriptions of which form part of this wonderful novel. Periodically during these Palo Alto sessions Web-Cohen informs Print-Cohen: “It is unfortunate that you will have to transcribe this.” I was not given any such information, and I was—perhaps—more fortunate. Here is the transcription of our conversations from the German sessions.
Jan Wilm: To begin at the beginning, what was the genesis of the book that some reviewers have called “the great American internet novel,” your novel Book of Numbers?
Joshua Cohen: Well, it’s not Genesis, it’s Numbers. The fourth book of the Bible, the source of my fourth novel. So I wouldn’t say there was a “let there be light” moment—I tend to mistrust those, because they tend to omit all those times a God said “abracadabra Big Bang Brightness,” or “How many of Me does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” and nothing happened, darkness prevailed. I believe, I guess you can tell, in making mistakes, and being remade by them. I believe in revision. Book of Numbers is more immediately traceable to my collection of short fiction, Four New Messages, to the four stories—or the four failed novels—that were included in that book, and to the many other stories—or to the many other failed novels—that didn’t make the cut. All were “about”—to put it crudely—the anxiety of writing under the sign of technology, under the sign of online. I was born in 1980, and so perfectly positioned to suffer the transition between book culture and digital culture. To my mind, the book was the product of the individual maker—the individual mind—the writer who worked alone and struggled for fixity, and the ultimate illusory fixity that is posterity. As Coleridge once put it, in his table-talk: prose is words in the best order, poetry is the best words in the best order. But online was a different world: Suddenly the most important texts weren’t those that were consciously, and conscientiously, composed for public consumption and intended to last forever, but those that were written casually and even accidentally and really actually will last forever (not to mention all of those texts written for private consumption but made public through hacks and leaks). Anyway, I was talking about anxiety: I was interested in the contrast between the anxiety I felt about making a book and the utter lack of anxiety, or what I took to be the utter lack of anxiety, in self-representation online. Friends, acquaintances, strangers: they all seemed so cavalier in their online expression, and I remember saying to myself, How dumb can I be wasting my life trying to put these words in the “best order,” when all the rest of the world seems so fluent and free, writing more and being read more than ever before in all of history? Where did I go wrong? I said this, or some version of this, to myself throughout most of 2006, as I gradually came to realize that I couldn’t go on—that I couldn’t go on with writing a book that wasn’t in some way about what it meant to write a book, or to write at all, in the age of digital technology. Six years later, Four New Messages was published. And three years after that, Book of Numbers. Cf. R. Kurzweil, “The Law of Accelerating Returns.”
JW: The first lines of Book of Numbers are: “If you’re reading this on a screen fuck, off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands.” Do you or does the character mind that this book is of course read on a screen rather than in print?
JC: The characters don’t exist, and I myself don’t mind. I’m happy to be read however. With all writing these days being digitized and treated as an etymological, grammatical, and syntactical tranche to be analyzed and monetized by search algorithms, I count myself lucky when I’m read by a human, who reads my sentences consecutively: left to right.
JW: How much research went into the writing of this book?
JC: Enough. I read a lot about the history of the Internet and Web: a lot of books, a lot of sites. And most of that writing is bad, written on deadline for money. I especially went after the memoirs of tech figures in the early industry and in government. IBM people, XEROX people, civil servants—gray-suited men (very few women), not the iconoclastic googolionaires. I also went after them personally—I realized that I was in a privileged position: these people were still alive, and they were at an age when they were ready to talk. Some, who worked in military technology, were ready for a reckoning. Speaking with them helped to clarify—helped to personalize—many things. For example, how closely tied the computing revolution was to the American counterculture. Another example, how a handful of techs comprised the thin red line between the “utopian” and the “dystopian.” That was a regular feature of my interviewing: retiree techs expressing regret about how their technologies, which were supposed to unite the world, instead have ended up surveilling and controlling it. It was my hope to dramatize this evolution, or devolution, in the novel—at least in the career arc of my character Abs, a XEROX-PARC employee and the father of my Tetration mogul, Joshua Cohen.
JW: The interviews that you did with the makers of the internet, which you’ve mentioned, form a kind of archive, an archive in fiction. You mentioned that many of these makers of the internet are older people, and there will of course be a time when none of them will be around, and I wonder if I may link this to the other major interest of the book, which is the Jewish faith and the Jewish people. At the present moment, of course, we live in a time where in ten or fifteen years there won’t be any more people on this planet who have survived the Holocaust and who can remember the war. So, there is this very poignant parallel—your novel is a record in fiction of people that will be gone, people whose lives aren’t archived in any systematic or detailed way, despite the fact that there is an internet that could archive everything that they know.
JC: Yes, yes, of course. Maybe I’m just becoming my own age slowly—maybe one day I’ll write about our own cohort. But Witz was in many ways about my grandparents’ generation—the Shoah generation—and Book of Numbers is in many ways about my parents’. Stepping back a bit I find some similarities: my grandparents, being refugees and survivors, believed in the so-called American Dream, and my parents, though they were born into an immigrant Jewish bubble, grew up believing in the counterculture—the radical promise of the counterculture. And both of these beliefs have collapsed: no one in my generation, in our generation, can reasonably believe in either. All of my fiction processes, or tries to process, the failure of these larger cultural or systemic fictions, which have yet to be replaced with anything else. Which might never be replaced. And perhaps that’s a positive sign. Perhaps it’s a sign of our having awoken, into disabuse.
JW: Could you speak a bit more about how the book engages with religious themes as it engages with the materiality of the book and the shift from a print culture to a digital culture?
JC: Book of Numbers is based, to a degree, on the Biblical book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Old Testament, known in Hebrew as Bemidbar. It’s a strange book. One of the strangest books ever. The first three books of the Bible tell the stories—all the great stories we know and love—while the last book, the fifth book, is basically just a legal code, and a summary. The fourth book, then, is where stories break down. The major story, the Exodus from Egypt, is over, and the Israelites have been freed from slavery, but condemned to wander the wilderness for 40 years—which is to say, they’re condemned to wander the wilderness until they’re dead, and the next generation has replaced them. One of the interpretations of this death-sentence is that people who were born and raised as slaves can never live as a free people in a free land—AKA the Promised Land, Zion. My novel takes that 40-year timeframe of wandering, but transposes it onto the four decades between the invention of the semiconductor, which is the genesis of personal computing, and the advent of the leak—so, ca. 1972-2012. During this span, the old culture “enslaved” to the book gave way to the new culture “freed” by digital technologies—a new people seeking a trans-national and virtual Promised Land that will never quite live up to its promise. Just as the Biblical book is about how a people were remade in, and by, the desert, my own novel seeks to show how a people were remade online—for better and for worse.
JW: I wonder if you can speak about how the two Joshua Cohens are linked? They meet in this almost Victorian way, it seems like a coincidence, and it’s convenient that they share the same name, because this way the ghostwriter can in fact put his own name on the book he writes about another man’s life. And they also seem like mirror images of one another, like doubles, and I have the feeling that Book of Numbers is also a book of brothers, in the way that they could almost come from the same place but they’ve simply gone different paths.
JC: All my characters are siblings, and my siblings too. My books are their consanguinity. Joshua Cohen and Joshua Cohen have the same name, sure, and are born in the same year, fine—but one is among the richest and most successful tech moguls on earth, and the other is…a writer, a freelance hack, a freelance ghost. So, they’re doubles, but doubles-as-opposites, which is of course a classic trope—the King (who’s a beggar in disguise) and the Beggar (who’s a king in disguise)—and I wanted to update that relationship, I wanted to technologize it. Technology brings us into contact with our doubles: it forces us to deal with them. Our name-doubles, our ambition-doubles, our ideology-doubles, etc.
JW: Even though the book engages with the shift from a print culture to a digital culture, in a very real way it shows that the one who is in control of the word is in power. And that power attaches to the Joshua Cohen who works in a print medium. Joshua Cohen the tech mogul doesn’t write his own memoir and put it on the internet, because even he values the printed book. He needs his memoir in print.
JC: Yes, for Joshua Cohen the mogul, the book is wholly sentimental, it’s wholly nostalgic. It represents seriousness to him, but lost seriousness. That’s the key to his poignancy, in my mind, and to his ultimate affinity with Joshua Cohen the writer: both men feel that in order to exist they must make a book, or at least be in one.
JW: To me, the Principal, Joshua Cohen the tech mogul, is one of the great characters in fiction in recent years. As the novel develops we learn a lot about his childhood, about his current life, about his health, about his strange doings all over the world, and about his interactions with the other Joshua Cohen. I don’t want to ask a childish question—How did you come up with this character?—but perhaps the child is allowed to speak for a moment. What interests me is how this character took shape. Was he the reason for everything? He certainly is the reason for everything in the story.
JC: Thank you, Jan. I’m not sure what to say about him—I mean, I wondered what it would be like to write a naïve character. Incredibly smart but also incredibly naïve and not annoying or boring. Anyone who reads a book today, especially a book like Book of Numbers, is smart, but also the opposite of naïve. You come to a book now, at the start of the third millennium, because you’ve become such a pessimist about everything else—about everything streaming. Because you read the newspapers, you read the magazines, you read them online, and then you say to yourself, enough. You’ve been disgusted into a reappreciation of what a book is, what a book can do. This is why readers today are more sophisticated than in any other time in human history. They read more, and they’ve been disgusted more, than have readers of the past. They’re phenomenally educated, and they can smell bad faith at any distance. So, given all that, how do you present them with innocence? How do you represent naïveté? In creating Joshua Cohen the mogul I thought back to socialist-realism. And to the critiques of socialist-realism. I thought, especially, about Platonov—a Soviet writer who both did and didn’t believe that a new type of man could be manufactured. Who both did and didn’t believe that a new type of man was desirable. Platonov’s characters have all the force and destructive capacities of an adult, but also all the dream-capacities of a child. A dangerous combination, to say the least.
JW: Through the Palo Alto sessions that Joshua Cohen the writer has with Joshua Cohen the billionaire, which the book reproduces with deletions and comments, both their lives become not only part of the content, but also part of the structure of the book, and in that way they are fictional characters archived in fiction. In this sense, through their polar interests and professions, Book of Numbers becomes an archive of our present day and age, but an archive that has to be read and supplemented through interpretation, like any archive, even like the archive of the internet, where all seems to be potentially there, but so much is, in fact, lost. Similar to the way so much is lost in a transcript of a conversation, even if the deletions remain, but so much falls prey to the automatic deletion of transcribed life—the laughter, the throat-clearing—and what’s not there is dead. The internet is also not a total archive and not a systematic one, and the archive of the internet doesn’t solve the most pressing of all human problems, which is death.
JC: This accidental eternity—this accidental immortality—is what interests me, online. The texts that have survived from antiquity are, with few exceptions—with archaeological exceptions—not accidental: they are texts that their cultures have chosen for preservation, and transmittal. Of course, there have been recensions and expurgations, but these too have been canonic, and while you can complain that the various committees that decided which texts should be preserved and transmitted in which versions were biased—they were all men, they were all men who spoke Hebrew, or Aramaic, or Greek, or Latin—you can’t deny that there were still processes at work, official systems for determining survival. Now, however, it’s all accidental, and it has to be accidental: you can’t go about your day reminding yourself that your every digital communication will be read, or at least readable, by your greatgreatgrandchild-robot. Still, you can’t help recalling this sometimes—I can’t help recalling this sometimes and feeling anxious. How I deal with this anxiety is by writing it down: call it realism, or call it therapy. Maybe it’s both.
JW: There is a statement by the Canadian novelist Alistair Macleod that speaks of the idea that writers write about what they worry about. Are you worried about either literature or the internet?
JC: What do you think? We’re living at a time of great change, from an era when the most important texts were purposefully composed and disseminated to the public, to an era when the most important texts are being leaked—we, the public, were never intended to read them. To write prose with style, or to try to, amid this recklessness is to redouble recklessness. Bemidbar, in Hebrew, means “in the desert,” or “in the wilderness”—and that’s where, or what, I am: bewildered.
JW: How does that worry translate to the future, of yourself as a writer and of the culture of the novel as a whole? Are you worried at all about the future of the novel?
JC: No. I mean, on the one hand—the nontyping hand—the Web/Internet might be more endangered than the novel is. After all, my government—your government, Jan—isn’t seeking to regulate the novel anymore: they haven’t done that in a while. Also, and again, more people are reading and writing more than ever before. And if reading and writing will last, so too will the novel. But let’s not be (needlessly) fussy or (needlessly) pretentious—I am afraid that novels (forget “The Novel”) will become this pious or sanctimonious politicized thing, a last-redoubt-of-the-humanities, a haven or refuge for those suffering under the digital hegemon. Novels should never be that serious—they should always be cheap and popular. Novels aren’t fruits or vegetables but candies. Drugs.
My bio runs something like this: Jan Wilm is a literary critic, translator, and writer based in Frankfurt, Germany. He is the author of The Slow Philosophy of J. M. Coetzee (Bloomsbury, 2016) and co-editor (with Patrick Hayes) of Beyond the Ancient Quarrel: Literature, Philosophy, and J. M. Coetzee (Oxford, 2017).

"The writer probably knows what he meant when he wrote a book, but he should immediately forget what he meant when he's written it."
William Golding

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Fast fact about writing

By definition, the modern practice of history begins with written records; evidence of human culture without writing is the realm of prehistory.