Joshua Cohen: portrait of the author as a monkey tied to a typewriter and CCTV

Book of Numbers and PCKWCK, written under video surveillance, with data analytics and a reader chatroom in attendance, address the novel’s difficulties in internet age

Joshua Cohen manages to bring the paranoiac energies of the maximalist systems novel – à la Pynchon, DeLillo and Wallace – to a sustained exploration of the post-Snowden era in which surveillance is an accepted part of everyday reality. His work spotlights our uncomfortable place in that reality: locked to a screen, buzzing with vague anxiety, knowing that someone might be watching, feeling only partially in control of where we’re going next

Joshua Cohen manages to bring the paranoiac energies of the maximalist systems novel – à la Pynchon, DeLillo and Wallace – to a sustained exploration of the post-Snowden era in which surveillance is an accepted part of everyday reality. His work spotlights our uncomfortable place in that reality: locked to a screen, buzzing with vague anxiety, knowing that someone might be watching, feeling only partially in control of where we’re going next

 

If you visited the corner of the internet marked out by the address “pckwck.com” during one week in October, you might have seen US author Joshua Cohen writing his latest novel live on the internet. To the left of your browser, you would have seen a box filled with live-streamed video of the author in his Brooklyn basement, cigarette dangling from mouth, eyes furrowed in writerly concentration; in the centre, you would have seen the words of the text appearing in real time as he typed in daily five-hour sessions; and to the right, a regular stream of anonymous, unmoderated comments from readers offering analysis, opinions and insults. You could, if you wanted, join in this stream, share your thoughts by completing a survey (the results of which would be collated and fed back to the writer) and, by clicking on a particular part of the text, make a heart (for some reason) appear on screen.

Writing under video surveillance, with data analytics and a reader chatroom in constant attendance: if this sounds like every writer’s worst nightmare, then this was essentially the point. This was a portrait of the author as a monkey tied to a typewriter and a CCTV camera, a beleaguered hamster strapped onto a multimedia treadmill, racing frantically to come up with an adequate metaphor. In an interview given during the project to The Believer magazine, Cohen described it as “an experiment in anxiety”.

The writing of the book, entitled PCKWCK and commissioned by publishing collective Useless Press, was also a way of dramatising the effect of the internet – and its attendant culture of instant response, endless proliferating communication, and relentless accumulation of data – on today’s writers. The narrative was (very) loosely based on Charles Dickens’ first novel The Pickwick Papers, a source chosen to suggest that technological developments are changing contemporary literary culture in something like the way in which the decreasing costs of printing allowed for the explosion of mass-produced serials in Dickens’ England.

The literary value of the work seems, by Cohen’s own description, to have been almost beside the point. The length of the narrative was closer to that of a novella, and the plot (which was more Guantánamo Diaries than Dickens) followed the abduction and torture of a writer in a way that brought together themes of interrogation, anonymity, responsibility and surveillance. The text was taken offline shortly after completion, and will appear in a limited edition publication whose proceeds will be donated to the American Civil Liberties Union.

One result of the experiment was the unsurprising conclusion that anonymity is not exactly conducive to civilised discourse (Cohen: “honestly, I didn’t expect the comments to be as horrible as they were the first day”). All of internet life was here, including reliably direct abuse from “Anonymous”, who opined that “this is the least important event in modern literary history”. A different “Anonymous” submitted a capitalised comment that pithily encapsulated the judgement of countless internet commenters upon sites everywhere: “DISAPPOINTING”. Another user asked, in a tone of impeccable snark, “Are you going to write a thinkpiece about this experience? About ‘the novel in the internet age’?” Cohen incorporated several of these comments into the narrative itself in the form of antagonistic questions from mysterious interrogators.

The concerns of the project follow closely from those of Cohen’s Book of Numbers, published earlier this year. That novel, a more substantial (and conventional) publication, also deals with the effect of the web on communication and the implications of our constant digital self-exposure. Its narrator, an embittered writer, is tasked with ghostwriting the biography of the founder of a fictional tech company called Tetration (an amalgam, more or less, of Google, Apple and Facebook) and finds himself drawn into a plot that highlights the nexus of corporate and state interests in our surveillance society.

Both characters are named Joshua Cohen (although the tech founder is, for clarity, referred to as “Principal” throughout), a metafictional move that sets up a plot built around doubling and serves to focus its fears about the fate of identity in a digital world.

Book of Numbers – perhaps more than any other recent work of literary fiction – makes it its business to explore at length the difficulties of – yes – the novel in the internet age. The tensions between digital and print cultures are introduced in an abrasive opening sentence (“If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off”) and the subsequent pages self-consciously navigate between the two, incorporating the characters’ typo-ridden emails, poorly-punctuated blog posts, and transcripts of draft word-processing documents.

Writing in these (web) pages recently, Bert Wright wrote that Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void “asserts the non-viability of the novel by using the supposedly defunct form to explore its own redundancy” and Cohen’s novel pushes into the same contradictory territory, posing questions about the compatibility issues between its own form and an increasingly digitised and fragmented daily environment. How to write a novel – a form traditionally dependent on action and incident – about a world in which the average human spends extravagant amounts of time gazing into the screen of the nearest device? How to utilise fiction’s beloved capacity to depict the richness of individual subjectivity when we spend much of our time navigating the same websites, travelling down pathways determined by the algorithms of the corporate interests that control them? To put it another way, how dramatic can it be to read about someone Googling something?

The novel addresses these problems head-on: our narrator is just as addicted to his digital tools as the rest of us are, and entire pages consist of him searching for word definitions, frustratedly trying to access blocked porn sites from a Dubai hotel room, and snooping on his estranged wife’s blog. All the while, he knows that his every online movement is known to his employers. As the narrative progresses, he starts to sense his free will diminishing: “My experience was beyond the vicarious – I myself was being autocompleted (I don’t recall getting dressed and out of the room).”

Principal’s monologue, which takes up most of the book’s middle section, is its most vivid achievement. A memorable medley of Gates, Jobs, Bezos and Yoda, Principal speaks in the first-person plural and is fond of gnomic tech-guru statements like “don’t concess the process” and “even the future of openness is closed.” His monologue is a strangely engrossing mix of geek-speak (“algy” for “algorithm”, “DCenter” for “datacenter”) and his own eccentric coinages (his parents are referred to as “M-unit” and “D-unit”): sentences such as “Then we decached and rode mod on the algy to block anything with the algy itself from begin transclused in future results” are not unusual. The “numbers” of the book’s title refer primarily to the ones and zeros of binary code, and the cumulative effect of Principal’s jargon becomes progressively more hypnotic as the narrative appears to adopt the language of the internet itself.

Book of Numbers comes with a large measure of frustration. It’s long – 580 pages, of which quite a few seem cuttable – and there are necessary problems resulting from its form (it can indeed be aggravating to read about someone Googling something). It takes an almost absurd length of time to get going: the most absorbing sequences, in which Principal recounts the corporate takeover of the web through his complicated relationship with a mystical Indian programmer named Moe, don’t appear until halfway through the book, leaving the reader to struggle through the novel’s first section in the narcissistic company of an unlikeable narrator (misogynistic, too: some more attention to the female characters really wouldn’t have gone amiss).

The novel’s form, though – a chronicle of the birth of the modern internet, told through the testimony of a writer-narrator with an umbilically intense connection to his laptop – allows it to take the internet as both theme and environment in a way that feels disturbingly familiar. (A side note: during the weeks I read this novel, both the US and UK governments were attempting to pass legislation granting state security services greater access to their citizens’ data.) Cohen manages to bring the paranoiac energies of the maximalist systems novel – à la Pynchon, DeLillo and Wallace – to a sustained exploration of the post-Snowden era in which surveillance is an accepted part of everyday reality. His work spotlights our uncomfortable place in that reality: locked to a screen, buzzing with vague anxiety, knowing that someone might be watching, feeling only partially in control of where we’re going next.