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literature : interview

Joshua Cohen

by Dan Duray

Tech moguls, syllable counting, computerized criticism, and the singularity.

Most people probably discovered the fiction of Joshua Cohen with the appearance of his short story “Emission” in the Spring 2011 issue of The Paris Review. In it, a man fights for dignity amidst search engine optimization after someone blogs a story he tells at a party, and his name becomes associated with a sex act. That story was later collected in Four New Messages, which James Wood singled out as one of the best books of the year in 2012, writing: “I was excited to read this young writer, and uncalmly await more.”

In fact, the now-34-year-old author already had a lot more. At that point, he’d published the novels Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto (2007), A Heaven of Others (2008), and Witz (2010), a winding, 800-page experimental work about, literally, the last Jew on Earth. If any press releases exist about him they probably contain a line like, “Cohen explores themes human and everlasting with humor, wit, and pathos.” His new novel, Book of Numbers (Random House, June 9), is the culmination of efforts seen in Four New Messages and takes us through the ghostwriting of a tech mogul’s autobiography. The mogul’s name is Joshua Cohen, as is the ghostwriter’s. The novel vaguely follows the structure of the biblical book for which it is named, but its most impressive section is the second, a raw interview with that mogul, which comprises some 400 pages.

The real-life Joshua Cohen also writes the New Books column in Harper's magazine, and as a critic he neither shows off nor pulls punches. In The London Review of Books, he began his review of Jonathan Franzen’s translation of Karl Kraus with the question: “What’s the German for a writer who resurrects a writer who would have hated him?” Born in Atlantic City, Cohen speaks in a way that is quick, vivid, and dense, like William Vollmann mixed with a capo from a Martin Scorsese movie. We conducted this interview at my place, which he had previously likened to “a Tampa drug dealer’s apartment in the ’90s, because everything sucks, but the stereo system is good,” over iced coffee and cigarettes.

Dan Duray Much of your book concerns interviewing a man named Joshua Cohen. Do you have any tips for someone in a similar position?

Joshua Cohen Tips, I don’t know. One thing I did—which, if we tried it, would make this interview a lot easier for me, and a lot more difficult for you—was to write the answers first, and then write the questions second. In the novel, the interview questions are just prompts, or cues—like in the theater, for when an actor forgets a line.

DD How did you develop the voice of that Josh Cohen, Principal—your Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Larry Page/Sergey Brin character?

JC I began writing this book around the invention of autism—or what seemed like the invention of autism, “the spectrum,” this emplacement on a continuum that people suddenly claimed in midlife—as a justification, a reason or excuse for their behaviors, which, as a claim, was maybe or maybe not totally stupid, but was certainly offensive to people who truly were autistic, or who tipped autistic and hard, from birth. I had in mind the entirely functional, entirely hyperfunctional, variety of the condition: someone who made very few to no concessions to convention, who didn’t care or was perhaps unaware of how he was perceived, or even if he was understood. It was strange to me that many of the people around me who claimed the condition were techpeople. They weren’t going to compromise, they weren’t going to adapt socially, they were just going to change the world—they were going to impose themselves, with, again, hardly any acknowledgement of what that imposition might mean. They were psychopaths, or sociopaths—I don’t know. “Dammit, Jim, I’m a novelist, not a shrink.”

Principal begins his section as a child—and in a number of ways stays a child. The entire world has to learn his language, has to learn his mind, or be left behind. This is how he treats his family, this is how he treats his friends—if he has any. This is how he runs his company, this is how he thinks, and speaks: eminently plural.

DD Always in the first-person plural, you mean, which you get used to weirdly quickly. It felt like the voice had other rules. What were they?

JC The voice is a laundry list—compiled half from concept, half from experience. I knew I wanted to eliminate contractions: they’re messy, “not seamless.” The “as like” formulation—nothing in Principal’s section is “like” something, or “as” messy or seamless as something—everything is “as like”—I got from watching videos online: presentations by Indian, and Bangladeshi, engineers. “This setup is as like the previous setup, but now …” “As like the processor architecture we discussed last week …” But even this experience has a conceptual angle: Principal says that he mistrusts human language, because it never means what it says, never says what it means. He has no patience, or he tells his ghostwriter he has no patience, for metonymy, for metaphors, or similes. He fails to recognize, or he refuses to recognize, the correlations between the binary and the word: how all words, like all sequences of 1s and 0s, are just collapsements—how each and every word is just a heap of all the derivations and historical usages that went into making it what it is, which is also what it isn’t, today.

But I’m getting too mystical, I know. So let me just state for the record: There are an even number of paragraphs in every section of the book. There are an even number of sentences in every paragraph. It’s all about the evens. After all, the name of the company is Tetration. Hyper-4 …

Principal’s clauses are formed, and deformed, by Sanskrit prosody—which itself is a basis of binary notation. I counted words, I counted syllables. I drove myself crazy. All to ensure this flatness of affect. Or, more accurately, all to ensure a surface that was perfectly flat until the logic of the system threw a kink into it—until the logic destroyed what it had made—what it had made to be perfect, unimpeachable.

I guess one last inspiration was relevancy, which is to say irrelevancy—the distance between two terms, and how they can be brought further apart, and closer together, over the course of pages. This happens all the time—“automatically”—with search engines. But I wanted it to happen in a book. I wanted to track the relationships between words, to bring words and then groups of words into and out of relation with one another: “blank” associated with “empty,” “empty” associated with “pure,” etc. All words in every book are “linked,” obviously—certain words connected with certain characters. But the “links” I had in mind were a bit more purposive, a bit more broadening—repetitions and synonyms that didn’t just recall a reader to a section, or theme, but provided commentary too.

DD But why go through all this trouble?

JC It’s a version, or a travesty of the Joycean hope: to keep the academy busy for a while. I didn’t think I was being presumptuous, though. I think I was being preemptive. What I mean is that virtually any book that’s going to be paid serious literary—academic literary—attention nowadays is going to be run through a computer. Stanford, not coincidentally, is ground zero for this type of “criticism”—where scholars can tell you which American or British author misplaces the most modifiers, or when split infinitives were a thing, or not a thing. The study of literature is becoming, or has already become, the study of data. Every Dickens novel has been mined, every Nabokov character described as having phallically long toes has been tagged. Deconstruction—unconscious betrayal, or betrayal by the unconscious—is for the microchips now.

DD Principal’s parents have a great “meet cute” in San Francisco, where she’s this linguistics hippie and he’s a programmer who manages to prove, for her, that the Vietnam draft is not random. How much research did you do into that period when Principal grew up and came to power? And how’d you go about it?

JC Reading: histories of the place, of the period. Memoirs of guys who worked at Xerox-PARC. Academic papers about the draft, its dodgy methodology. Memoirs of dodging and of the engineers who did the computing in, and for, Vietnam. What emerged was a scene of discrete scenes: San Francisco’s Haight—we know the psychedelics, we try not to think about the downers. Way before that switch, Ken Kesey was out partying in Menlo Park—Perry Lane was just a block away from Stanford.

The Bay’s religious appetite was fascinating—Western burnouts getting rekindled by the East. Principal becomes involved with all this ’70s spirituality, but only in the ’90s—once it’s been packaged, or repackaged. I was interested in how authenticity can be found amidst any corruption, how traditions are either degraded or renewed by their redefinition, depending on the degree to which you’ve redefined it yourself. With regard to Principal, I’m adamant, and his ghostwriter’s adamant: what began in lifestyle, ends in faith—from the cheapest comes precious belief.  

DD A lot of the book is about the publication of Principal’s ghostwritten autobiography and the first and third parts of the book are about the other Joshua Cohen, the ghostwriter. The first sentences are actually: “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands. Paper of pulp, covers of board and cloth ...” Is this going to be on Kindle by the way?

JC Yes.

DD You know, your book isn’t actually very anti-technology.

JC I didn’t intend it to be anti-technology at all. Maybe anti-human—only in the sense that you can’t be skeptical of technology without being skeptical of the humans who make it, who use it. Machines are just our proxies. Everything is our fault—everything.

Anyway, the question of whether technology is good or bad—yes or no—is itself too technologically framed. Can’t someone around here still be a humanist?

DD But I mean the ending. Bleak though it is, one interpretation of that is some kind of vision of the singularity, or of heaven.

JC Only if the singularity means a bunch of white men’s corpses washing up on darker shores—the death of a certain hegemony.

DD To be reborn as something else?

JC That’s what Principal thinks—that’s what Moe, Principal’s employee and mentor, thought. The mind is the software, the body’s just hardware. The mind can pass through an endless series of bodies, can be endlessly uploaded, downloaded, replicated, corrupted—it’s the reincarnation cycle, with the carne in this instance being a bloody machine that goes obsolete, and gets superseded. The singularity is an ancient idea: your karma gets better until your mind, or soul, is freed—purity being the ultimate opt-out.

DD Why don’t Silicon Valley people recognize this? Why do they still want to change the world, and not just themselves?

JC Because they are the world—it’s not narcissism, it’s solipsism.

I mean, the idea of changing the world, making it better, or the best it can be—this has been around for a while too. Utopia being literally no-place, and the land that once was Eden now being held by ISIS …

DD I was going to ask about religion—you get deep into Buddhist and Hindu doctrines in the book, but doesn’t Judeo-Christianity have something to say about technology too? I mean, isn’t your title Book of Numbers?

JC Omniscience—that’s the Judeo-Christian problem. It relates to sin. A large portion of the world believed for a very long time that God could hear and see absolutely everything. That belief was so strong that not a few modern people, in not a few modern societies, still swear by it—at least I’m told they do. God knows when you’re lying, where you’re lying, and with whom—if you’re jerking off. Historically, God knew all this, and heard and saw all this, and the church both enforced and explained the punishments. God had omniscience. The church had justice.

The Enlightenment changed things. It scoffed at God’s role, even at His existence, but it kept the church—rather it transferred the church’s power to the state. The individual’s primary legibility, and accountability, was now to a government, which began developing and otherwise acquiring the technology to render it godlike: able to monitor, able to surveil.

The state, today, fulfills both roles: it knows and hears and sees all there is to know and hear and see, and it responds to everything with law, the mortal brand of justice.

DD Where do novelists fit in?

JC They used to know a lot, and then they knew less, and as they lost control of information, or of the suspicion of information, their power—or their grip on the public imagination, say—weakened. But instead of reverting to what they always were: storytellers, talebearers, dreamers, and prophets, they kept fighting the Victorian fight—they kept struggling to keep abreast, to keep current, to know more, and to invent more of what they thought there was to know, by which I mean: paranoia.

Pynchon, DeLillo—both are great novelists of conspiracy, which is to say, in Burroughs’s terms, they’ve been condemned to report the news—or what should’ve, or could’ve, been the news—but never to write it.

All their secret cabals have come to light, have come to nothing, online—where the ease of leaking, and of false leaking, puts all possibilities to the public, but without the prose—without the succor of style.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: That ’70s generation asked, “Is this true?” Novelists now have to ask, “Can we live with it?”

DD Can you? I don’t think you’re on Facebook, for example.

JC My sister-in-law ... I want to put this like a journalist … My sister-in-law was identified by a lot of newspapers as Mark Zuckerberg’s “Erika.”

DD From the movie?

JC From the movie of life. But that’s not why, or not all of why, I’m not on Facebook, or any other social media. Truth is, I’m afraid of it—scared of writing something I’ll want to revise or retract (for me, writing a one-sentence happy birthday email is just as difficult as writing one happy sentence of a book), and scared of angering someone and having to—feeling I’d have to—apologize. I don’t trust my mouth, or the mouth of my fingers—and, with regard to Twitter, let’s just say that I don’t trust that audience to read me as I intend to be read: the comprehension of intention requiring more space and time than is usually afforded online, and also requiring something of a social dimension, a matrix of norms and mores, all contextual.

Of course, this has always been a book problem too—but at least with a book the dissociative pretense still somewhat obtains: the author is not the narrator, the author’s life is distinct from the plot. The same sundering between writer and written hasn’t yet been extended to digital avatars, and I don’t think it’ll ever be—unfortunately, that New Criticism type of reading seems very old now, delusional and evasive when applied to fiction and even worse—malicious—when applied online. The Age of Fake Screen Names is over. We’ve become both the selves we present, and even the selves others present us to be—we’ve been made answerable. And I find that oppressive. I became a novelist in order to hide: not because novels enabled me to offload my most private or most shameful thoughts onto my characters who, by dint of being nonexistent, exempted me from judgment, but because I’m convinced that, if I myself exist at all, it’s as multiple I’s: that each and every thought worth having, or worth expressing, is, in effect, a new self, an inspired self, in the breathy, spirit-speaking sense—and that it can’t be controlled, it can only be added-to, multiplied, exponentiated, tetrated, by subsequent iterations, other “characters.”

DD Your book begins with a debauched book party on September 10, 2001. Where were you on 9/11?

JC Watching it on TV, in a bar in Berlin. I’d left the States a couple of weeks before. I’d just graduated—or, as the more expensive schools insist, I’d just been graduated—and couldn’t land a job. There weren’t many jobs for someone with authority issues whose only skill was English. Not even speaking it or writing it conventionally. Just English, in the abstract. I interviewed to be some sub-sub-assistant at some publishing house that wasn’t Random House. This was just before “favorite,” the most inane of adjectives, became the most inane of verbs, and I was asked to name my favorite author. I said, “Céline.” And so the interview—strange now to call it that—was over.

The only thing to do was to liquidate my bank account and on $4K move to Europe and cultivate various drug habits. I became a correspondent for a Jewish newspaper, The Forward—if a second-tier Ukrainian city was about to build a new ice-hockey rink atop an eighteenth-century Jewish cemetery, I’d be there: interrogating the developer, the coach, the goalie, the mayor.

The America I returned to, in 2006, was different, and not just because of the Bush regime. Digital technology—computing—had become embedded in daily life. I’d left the country not owning a cell phone—a mobile phone?—but returned to country, or at least to a city, that required me to have one, if I wanted to survive. If I wanted employment, or a sex-life.

This was the culture of constant connection—the last echo of all the last messages all the people in the towers left for their families, on voicemail.

DD Remember when Rudy Giuliani answered his phone in the middle of a presidential campaign speech, and he was like, “Hey, don’t make fun of me, it’s not that I’m whipped, it’s that my wife was getting on a plane, and you always have to talk to your wife when she’s about to get on a plane because 9/11?” It was one of the best times he brought up 9/11.

JC I remember that—I remember reading about it, in Hungary, I think, in what used to called “an internet café”—which today is just called a café, plain and simple, and lousy with laptops.

Going online then—in all the former Eastern Bloc countries I was reporting from—the internet was my America, and I mean that with all love and hate at once.

DD Why does the ghostwriter JC fall for an Arab Muslim woman in full hijab?

JC Why not? He has to fall for someone—and who is she, who is this Izdihar, if not a someone?

Obviously the present—“by which I mean the topical,” as I write in the book—was behind the impulse, but I wouldn’t have been able to write about Izdihar without having been convinced of a connection between the burqa, or abaya, and more secular forms of concealment. JC the ghostwriter is attracted to what he can’t have—to what he can’t even sense, not fully: with her limbs all covered, her face mostly covered, and the fact that she can’t be searched up online.

But while he’s living out his exotic/erotic Orientalist fantasy, there’s another linking at work. To live by the laws of any orthodoxy, Islamic orthodoxy not excepted, is basically a fulltime job. The same is true of living a life dedicated to staying anonymous—undetected, off-grid. Each culture to its own fundamentalism.

I’m lucky, then—not just because I’m not an Islamic woman kept in purdah against my will, and not just because I’m not a Luddite. I’m lucky because I’ve always had a ready outlet for my obscurities, my obfuscations, my desires to cloak, and lie low—namely, language, which is neither strictly religious, nor strictly secular, but both, or something between. The language to which I declare my allegiance strives beyond the declarative—by being aware of that striving, which forces that awareness on the reader. I’m referring to a language that avails itself of irony and sarcasm—all manner of rhetorical raiment that makes a reader decide how serious I’m being, how humorous I’m being, whether “I’m” “me”, and why this or that word or phrase as opposed to all the other words and phrases was chosen as a disguise. 

DD Who wins in publishing today?

JC The Germans. Publishing is the only war the Germans have ever won, by the by.

DD Why did you choose to include so much material about the publishing industry?

JC We’re living in the reality show version of reality, is why—and we’ve been living in it for a while now. The story behind the story has become the only tale to tell. It’s about transparency, and disabuse: the democratization of the hero, or the hero’s devaluation into celebrity, this seemingly American sense that there’s a system in place, an equal opportunity system by which anyone can claim the world’s attention. Art is now concerned with figuring that out—with laying bare or appearing to lay bare the processes by which the people we read about or watch or listen to become “themselves,” so that we can have what they have too—everyone gets a turn, in this strange collaboration between insatiability and fairness.

If I was going to write another book, I was going to have to deal with this phenomenon. I was going to have to deal with how all this chatter about the death of the book, or the death of fiction, was in fact about money: sales, especially print sales, were low, or just lower than the publishers required. Meanwhile, critics and even some novelists kept saying that fiction had gotten boring, without realizing that they’d gotten bored, of themselves—of lives spent reloading email perpetually. The novel was dusty, fusty, artificial—that’s what they said. But, honestly, what wouldn’t seem that way when compared to the effortless interface of identical screens? What handmade circumscribed thing wouldn’t seem crude next to a seemingly bottomless box of sleek titanium? Some people decided the answer was to write a memoir. Some people decided the answer was to write a memoir but then market it as fiction. They used themselves as narrators, using their own names—they used their own lives as plots and even their anxieties about using them. Only truth could save the form—only truth could redeem the language, and make it relevant to the accuracy manias of technology and media. I found this ridiculous, of course, and fertile. Better to be the ghostwriter of a ghostwriter.


Dan Duray is a journalist working in New York City.