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Joshua Cohen writes a novel for the Internet Age

  • Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen writes a novel for the Internet Age

04 Feb 2016

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In the 1990s, a ceaseless string of Internet-themed films made their way into American theaters. From the digitized then-present of “Hackers” and “The Net” to the techno futures of “Johnny Mnemonic” and “The Matrix,” Hollywood, and through Hollywood the American public, held fast to a fascination with the implications of the Internet Age.

It’s only now, though, separated from the nascent web by decades, that a true reflection on those implications can be made. For author Joshua Cohen, that reflection is one of language.

His latest novel, “Book of Numbers,” co-opts the rhythms of computer codes for his prose.

“For me it’s a question of how I get a book written,” he says. “Since I wanted to write a book about the Internet, I wanted it to contain some of the materials of the Internet.”

While “Book of Numbers” hints at a technological thriller in parts of its plot, it is primarily driven by this process of creating original language, and that’s Cohen’s focus as a writer.

“Some moments in my life language is a medium of art, and some moments of life, it’s what I use to order at the deli.

“But my idea has always been that there’s a portion of my life in which I’m a self-appointed guardian of this language. I’m responsible for moderating my speech and understanding what my speech means.

“I wanted to understand the silent speech of computer language. What were these instructions? What were the mechanics?”

The novel embraces these questions. Instead of following a traditional story arc, it constantly digresses and expands.

A single short sentence might contain several subjects tangential to the main theme, as when the narrator considers taking off in a plane: “Heavy metal on the ground becomes airborne, hollowboned birdflight, featherlight.”

Here, the simple proposition “the plane flies” is described by related — but not strictly necessary — details, creating something more like poetry than prose. In this way, the novel mimics the heady feeling of clicking through endless links on Wikipedia, delving deeper and deeper into a subject (or away from it).

The hyperlinking of the modern world led Cohen to his interest in the Internet in the first place. His perspective is unique, though, because he spent much of the boom overseas and unplugged.

“I came back to the States around 2007, and the country was largely unrecognizable,” he says. “It was unrecognizable because of what the Internet had become, and I felt excluded from it. So I became fascinated by it.”

Authors are now more connected to one another than ever before, and “Book of Numbers” is among the first novels to explore what that means for language. Cohen sees his role as a single voice in the literary chorus.

“Authors are all just names on the spine, and the words that come to us are just the words of the time. You learn how to read first, and then you learn how to read the age. You learn how to read the era,” Cohen says. “I think that level of reading is the highest and should be commended.”