Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, November 27, 2015

Joshua Cohen, _The Book of Numbers_, and Adam Mars-Jones

ANOTHER BRILLIANT PERFORMANCE by Mr. Cohen, among whose unabashed fans I count myself, and something of a banking turn away from Yiddishkeit into the Way We Live Now by my favorite American under-40 fiction writer...though still within the gravitational pull of Judaica, obviously, with its title drawn from the Torah. My guess: the conflict in the (original) Book of Numbers between those Hebrews who are going to enter the Promised Land and those who are not is being compared, tongue I suppose a bit in cheek, to the conflict in the novel between the paper-and-ink literatus Joshua Cohen I (not to be mistaken for the author) and the internet zillionaire Joshua Cohen II (clearly not to be mistaken for the author). What Promised Land is this, one has to wonder...

...but since some of my thoughts on this novel are scheduled to appear in paper-and-ink next spring, I am going to proceed to the topic of Adam Mars-Jones's review of it in the London Review of Books, which seemed uncharacteristically impercipient to me.

In particular, I was dismayed by Mars-Jones's statement that "I've never before come across a book that finds its feet a third of the way through," which he later elaborates as "it's common enough for a long novel to have a short one inside it, wildly signaling to be let out [...]." M-J admires the voice Cohen the novelist has invented for Cohen-the-entrepreneur and even seems to think the middle third of the novel (i.e., Cohen I's drafts, fragments, and transcripts of the ghosted autobiography of Cohen II) could stand as a work of fiction by itself.

Well, maybe it could. It's obviously better where it is, though, because of the whole who-shall-enter theme.

Can't blame M-J for falling in love with Cohen II's language--Cohen the novelist, showing the same flair for heteroglossia he has shown elsewhere, nails early 21st century American geekspeak: its abbreviations, its predilection for coining verbs out of nouns, its shortcuts and pithiness. But Cohen-the-novelist just does as well with blogger-speak, lawyer-speak, agent-speak, and so on, and the voice he gives Cohen I is (I think) is as perfectly tuned to its character in its luxuriantly lyrical way as Cohen II's is. That account of the publication party...perfect.

Maybe it's a British thing. M-J's attraction to the voice of Cohen II reminds me of the way Martin Amis and James Wood talk about Bellow's style. The chewier, the better. Well.

Still, I'm delighted to see the LRB gave The Book of Numbers about as much space as and a stronger reviewer than Purity got. Things are looking up!

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