Joshua Cohen’s remarkable Book of Numbers begins by strongly suggesting that we not read the novel with one forefinger lightly skimming the screen of our portable electronic device: “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands.” After this initial salvo, the narrator natters on without providing much in the way of solid introductory information:
I’m writing a memoir, of course—half bio, half autobio, it feels—I’m writing the memoir of a man not me.
It begins in a resort, a suite.
I’m holed up here, blackout shades downed, drowned in loud media, all to keep from having to deal with yet another country outside the window.
If I’d kept the eyemask and earplugs from the jet, I wouldn’t even have to describe this, there’s nothing worse than description: hotel room prose. No, characterization is worse. No, dialogue is…. Anyway this isn’t quite a hotel. It’s a cemetery for people both deceased and on vacation, who still check in daily with work.
Who is telling this story? Where is it taking place? What are we meant to conclude as the narrative voice veers between the impersonal argot of technology and a propulsive confession of misery and neurosis?
Unless you have a taste for ambiguity and frenetic verbosity, for cerebral literary games, and for the sort of fiction in which two of the principal characters have the same name as the author and one of those characters is a writer, you might be tempted to give up. But within a few pages Book of Numbers becomes not only clear, but (at least for a while) pleasurable to read.
Its early chapters feature a succession of dazzling set pieces, among them an orgiastic publication party that spills from a bar in Manhattan’s meatpacking district into the bar’s men’s room and beyond:
All of college was crammed into the stall, Columbia University class of 1992, with a guy whose philosophy essays I used to write, now become iBanker, let’s call him P. Sachs or Philip S., sitting not on the seat but up on the tank, with the copy of my book I’d autographed for him on his lap—“To P.S., with affect(at)tion” rolling a $100 bill, tapping out the lines to dust the dustjacket, offering Cal and Kimi! bumps off the blurbs, offering me.
“Cocaine’s gotten better since the Citigroup merger.”
A knock, a peremptory bouncer’s fist, and the door’s opened to another bar, yet another—but which bars we, despite half of us being journalists, wouldn’t recollect: that dive across the street, diving into the street and lying splayed between the lanes. Straight shots by twos, picklebacks. Well bourbons chasing pabsts. Beating on the jukebox for swallowing our…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.