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.
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