Numb & Number – The Revolution Will Not Be Brooklynized
‘If it’s inaccessible to the poor, it’s neither radical nor revolutionary.’
—unattributed, frequently seen on Twitter & Tumblr
So as we charge headlong into this new century, everyone agrees that fiction needs to keep up with the times. With the written word continuing to mutate and evolve online, traditional communication runs the risk of seeming outdated and quaint. But where some people see a problem, others see an opportunity, so into this breach steps Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers and Ben Lerner’s 10:04, each being marketed for how well they reflect The Way We Live Now (though neither JC nor BL would dream of stringing together so many monosyllabic words in a row).
The inside cover of 10:04 promises ‘Ben Lerner captures what it’s like to be alive now.’ As for Book of Numbers, one blurb says it ‘renders the full range of modern experience both online and off.’ And I get that this is essentially a marketing gimmick (partially successful—I did read both books, but I only checked them out from the library), but the hype creates expectations for these books that they don’t come close to fulfilling—and in the case of BofN, can’t fulfill. I mean, the full range of modern experience? Give me a break.
Look, it’s one of the biggest writing challenges out there to try and make one’s narrow experience feel ubiquitous, to get the I’s to resonate as We’s, especially when the experiences are as narrow as they are here. Both books play at being autofiction, the author’s world as the entire world. Which could work if the narrators in both books weren’t so emotionally numb, or had even the slightest bit of empathy or insight into anyone other than themselves, but while both narrators have endless enthusiasm for self-presentation, they aren’t all that big on self-examination. So in the end both books end up feeling more affected than affecting—your typical middle-class frostwalk through the world, basically.
Things happen to the narrators, all kinds of extraordinary things—international travel, stories in The New Yorker, six-figure advances, sex with beautiful women—and all of it is received with the same nothing shrug.
It’s odd that at a time when it feels like we’re moving faster than ever, when there is no greater weakness than needing to rest, the writing in both books moves so ponderously slow. In fact, in their cold distance, their fear of the future, their distrust of technology and pleasure, both books have way more in common with late 20th century turn-of-the-millennium angst than how we’re living today. Or to put it another way, these books are being marketed as the new Miley Cyrus when they read a lot more like the old Radiohead. Which is jarring, because in this age of SJW’s and internet outrage, when hefty intellectual ideas get effectively communicated in less than 140 characters and everyone’s using CAPS LOCK to express the intensity of their emotions, why would anyone think that endless disambiguation and narrative ice is the voice of today?
10:04 and BofN say a great deal about how JC and BL Live Now, but they say next to nothing about the rest of us. And what’s weirdest, the thing that keeps getting under my skin, is that neither book seems to even acknowledge that We exist, let alone how We Live.
One book is slender. The other, if not mammoth, still holds massive mammothesque aspirations of mammothosity. That turn of phrase is a backhanded tribute to JC, who apparently never met an opportunity for over-alliteration that he didn’t chase across a desert and then beat to death with a thick club. As a piece of writing, Book of Numbers is almost unfinishably bad—not on this salary, anyway. The prose has a weird stillborn quality. It doesn’t swing, it plods. Tales of an accelerated culture that read like we’re running in sand. At one point it crossed my mind that not reading Cohen’s book but forming an opinion about it anyway would actually be the most Right Now thing I could possibly do.
BofN plays at being autofiction but turns out to be pretty much straight fiction. It’s an inversion of Kerouac’s method—instead of real events & fake names we get real names & fake events—which is an interesting idea with a seriously great premise (and it would seem most reviewers & blurbers have read the premise and not the book): a loathsome narrator named Joshua Cohen is asked to ghostwrite a book about a mega-successful tech guy also named Joshua Cohen. The book plays with ideas about identity and anonymity in the digital age, and so even if the execution is brutal, you have to give JC credit for having a good idea.
But I’m not kidding when I describe the narrator as loathsome. You would not believe how women get talked about in this book. The misogyny here isn’t even casual, it’s just part of the landscape, like some kind of weird sexist Tourette’s. And I’m all for unlikeable protagonists. Most writers these days are so annoyingly chipper and eager to please, and god knows I’ve got plenty of bile and spite myself, so reading this should be cathartic. But JC’s spite just makes me feel slightly embarrassed for him. It doesn’t seem to spring from genuine nastiness—it feels more like someone trying to impress, to appear edgy. And of all the ways to be edgy, misogyny and racism—both of which are simply the dominant, mainstream way of seeing the world—are probably the most pointless and dull.
And sure the internet is filled with crucibles of hatred, so one could argue that the racism, sexism, etc. is merely JC’s attempt to reflect online ugliness in his fiction. But where’s the rest of the internet? Because it’s also Black Lives Matter, and community organizing, and progressive politics. There’s a lot of good to be found in The Way We Live Now—people fall in love, people feel less alone—but like some kind of cliche-addled death rocker, JC falls into the trap of thinking that because the world is so truly fucked-up then only things that are fucked-up can be true. Or maybe he’s trying to make online life feel as ugly as possible to suggest that offline life is superior; the book’s opening line, for instance, is: ‘If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off.’ Truth is, it’s hard to know what JC’s motives are, or what he’s trying to accomplish. Everything here is so half-assed—more ambivalent than ambiguous—that you’re just kind of left scratching your head and wondering what’s the point.
And yet for all his badass posturing, JC still refers to his father’s death as ‘Dad’s decline,’ which just betrays his inner squeamishness. He doesn’t even have the heart for true transgression. There’s a worminess here you’d never find in Burroughs, or Ballard, or Acker. And in the end, even JC’s crudeness feels more like underage posturing—not so much shocking but obvious in its desire to shock. Or offend. Or at least annoy.
So a great idea for a book turns out to be a bitter, nasty mess. 1.580 (that’s a decimal point, not a comma—an attempt to mirror techspeak that’s totally unnecessary to following the story) pages of bile, misanthropy, racism/sexism, and self-loathing; JC as a supremely vile type of dork. But then there’s the writing itself. BofN has some of the most brutally constructed and clunkily syntaxed sentences I’ve come across in a while. JC works so hard to wedge unexpected words into his sentences that it turns the prose unintentionally comic, e.g. his enthusiasm for using nouns as verbs (‘The resort leisured around them’), which doesn’t work as poetry or prose, as meaning or abstraction. You can, like Josephine Livingstone did, cherrypick the worst sentences, (someone in the comments coined the phrase ‘high-modernist white-boy stunt-fiction’ and I want to bake them ginger snaps). You can pull out the obvious & most glaring examples, but that doesn’t capture the awkward tediousness, the endless overposturing and desperate attempts at cleverness, that appear on every page.
Outside, the doublesided sandwichboard spread obscenely with the recurring daily special still daily, still special, the boardbreaded sandwiches and soups scrawled out of scraps, the goulash and souvlaki and scampi, leftover omlets and spoiled rotten quiches, the menus inside unfolding identically—greasy. The vinyls were grimy and the walls were chewed wet. A Mediterranean grove mural was trellised by vines of flashing plastic grape. A boombox was blatting la mega se pega, radio Mexicano.
The methadone was working, and so the methadone was working on the girl. Our counter guy wiped the counter.
This way of writing is, for better or worse, simply the way Joshua Cohen likes to express himself. I kept waiting to learn Cohen’s language, to catch the lilt of his voice, kept waiting for the narration to feel natural (another tribute to JC’s gratuitous alliteration that he uses in every paragraph, sometimes every sentence—for what purpose, I have no idea). The dialogue’s fine for the most part, and every 20 or so pages there’s a joke that doesn’t make you avert your eyes with embarrassment for the author, but Cohen’s first person prose is a truly brutal slog, laborious and horrifying, with a hit/miss ratio so pathetic that when I come across a good phrase like ‘transit lit’ it feels like it got in there by mistake.
The resort was a blade that cast darkness to the dial, that clocked. But now there was not time. Now there was no shadow. It was noon, and that great incandescent beachball was directly above. Behind us, far on the elevated concourse, a crowd went about its static, like spray spumed from an unattuned screen. Men in robes, white terry. Women blacked between them. In front of us, the abyss lapped at the corniche, as if gorging out of boredom.
Messy sentences. The kind of messy that isn’t the result of sloppiness but the product of too much overthinking, a meticulous kind arranging & rearranging until all the life’s been bled out of whatever he was trying to say in the first place. It’s awkward watching someone try so hard to come across as spontaneous and free when you can feel the sweat & worry on every page. The only thing more irritating than a gifted child who won’t stop showing off is the ordinary child who wants everyone to think they’re a genius. But then Cohen has nothing to say, not really. And all his would-be literary pyrotechnics are just a smokescreen to keep you distracted from the absence of anything resembling drama, character, or story, or skill.
Speaking of irritating gifted children, the suddenly-bankable corpse of David Foster Wallace hangs all over the chatter around this book. Critics can’t stop comparing JC to DFW, which seems strange at first, considering JC’s style has a lot more in common with Vollmann (esp. its ‘hey, check out the whores!’ tendencies), but is less strange when you consider that a DFW comparison is more likely to sell copies. Because aside from an annoying compulsion to always want to sound like the smartest guy in the room, the two writers have very little—DFW’s prose voice sounds like an actual person talking to you in a way that JC’s does not—in common.
You need to work through so much bad writing just to find a good line like ‘She had to her an overbite of hesitation’ that it just isn’t worth it. The exhaustion of reading the exhaustion of his writing got so exhausting that I was almost grateful when this bit of ugliness surfaced 150 pages in and gave me an excuse to start skimming:
No matter how much they’ve traveled, most whites have had this experience abroad—especially in the darker countries. These people—these dimnesses, darknesses—are interchangeable, the white tourist thinks, they’re cognate, coincident, synonymical. The inner life as impenetrable as its outer pigmentation. Black is bad, the color of evil, a stain or taint. A cancer. Red is bestial. Brown is shit. Yellow is piss timid.
But then inevitably our traveler comes to know someone—maybe his waiter, maybe only his maid. He might even, let’s hope, come to have sex with someone, for love or money, for both, and—when the fascination ends, when the package tour ends—is either confirmed or disabused, ashamed of his initial bias or not.
Fuck this guy. Seriously. This isn’t a ‘comment’ on racism, or ugly americanism, or anything like that. It’s simply one more in a seemingly endless series of smug racist/misogynist posturing that serves no purpose other than to be obnoxious. That paragraph also provides one of the main narrative thrusts of the book as JC falls in lust with a married arab woman in Dubai, punches out her abusive husband, and then improbably begins an affair with her (the plot mechanics JC uses to get them fucking are less developed than your typical porn storyline).
But because he writes messages as ‘msgs’ and text as ‘txt,’ and because the middle section of the book tells a story about the other JC’s tech start-up that isn’t much different than what you’d find in Wired or the 338.7 section of my local library, people are falling for the idea that JC’s engaged with current culture. Well, in the kind of cutting-edge language JC might use, I think his new book sux.
Now unlike BofN, Ben Lerner’s 10:04 isn’t a total piece of shit. For one, it has an opening sentence to die for, one that fulfills every promise on the inside flap.
The city had converted an elevated length of abandoned railway spur into an aerial greenway and the agent and I were walking south along it in the unseasonable warmth after an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death.
The sentence evokes and signifies in a million different directions at once—deindustrialization, gentrification, privilege, exploitation of natural resources, climate change, casual cruelty, obliviousness of the elite, and probably more stuff that I’m not even picking up on, but unfortunately, it’s mostly downhill from there. Though he promises at the beginning of the book to take us on a journey ‘from irony to sincerity in the sinking city,’ BL still feels like the same narrator at the end of the book that he was at the beginning, in part because whatever irony he engages in at the beginning of the book is so toothless and slight that it’s barely noticeable.
10:04 has much to admire—BL can craft gorgeous sentences and imagery, but there’s very little to love. He notices everything but feels nothing, to the point where the book becomes a detective novel with the reader sifting through the narrative for clues to the existence of BL’s soul. And in his helplessness, his constant exasperated anhedonia and fear of confrontation, BL’s persona is one step away from Woody Allen, and maybe two from Jerry Seinfeld.
Though BL likes his humor more subtle than either of those guys—nothing too vulgar, nothing too broad. He’s the kind of writer who thinks saying ‘in copula’ instead of ‘while fucking’ is funny. Situations ripe for satire and/or scathing insight—shopping at Whole Foods, sperm donation, a writer’s retreat—go curiously unscathed. During his trip to Whole Foods, the first trip (there are two), BL uses the words ‘outrageously priced’ and ‘overpriced’ within paragraphs of each other and has a spiritual encounter with a jar of instant coffee where he marvels at the global economy that delivered it to him while forgetting the role actual human beings played, so we get the commodity fetishism of Marx without any of the outrage about labor exploitation—a recurring theme. We also get no idea how BL feels about shopping there, or why he shops there instead of someplace else. Left to draw our own conclusions, the primary takeaway is that BL lives a life where money is not an issue.
The only concession to plot development is BL’s platonic friend, Alex, who wants him to impregnate her as platonically as possible so she can have a baby that he may or may not be involved in raising. We have no idea why he goes along with it. Does he have self-doubts? Of course he does. Self-doubt is BL’s default emotion. But he goes along with Alex’s plan without so much as a question. This BL is a bit of a pushover. I wish he was my friend; I’d try and make him do all kinds of weird shit. There’s something about BL’s lack of judgement, fear of external drama, that makes you want to fuck with him a little bit. Check out BL at a coffee shop. ‘I ordered what I thought was a simple drip coffee that turned out to be an exorbitantly priced single-origin Chemex affair.’ He drinks it and says nothing.
Nobody in this book laughs, nobody cries, nobody cares. I guess being dead inside with no will and desires of your own is what it means to be alive in the 21st century.
To be fair though, JC and BL both discuss pornography in their books, which is very much a part of the internet, which itself is a big part of The Way We Live Now. But while JC is dependent on it—when he finds his server blocked, he asks his friends to e-mail him some—BL’s a bit more squeamish. When he goes to donate his sperm, he finds they’ve provided a bunch of streamable movies to help inspire him. He’s ‘embarrassed to choose,’ but ‘after a few seconds of panicky deliberation, I just pressed play—Asian Anal Adventures, even though that’s not at all my thing; not choosing seemed less objectionable somehow than having to express a positive preference among the available categories.’
Jesus. What a prude. And the worst kind of prude—the kind who still jerks off while he watches Asian girls get sodomized (no description of the video of course). Although it should be noted that he’s not so much of a prude that he doesn’t cop a feel off his platonic girlfriend when he thinks she’s sleeping.
10:04 gives us a narrator so self-conscious, so burdened by his privilege, that it almost makes me grateful to be poor. At least I’m able to jerk off without feeling guilty about it. The way he deal with his entitlement is weird though. He may not be Marie Antoinette screaming, ‘Let them eat cake,’ but he is a guy wandering around NYC going, ‘Man, check out all this cake everyone’s got. I’ve got a bunch of cake too. I’m aware that a lot of people don’t have this much cake, and I feel kind of bad about it, so I’ll just go around all the time acting like cake sucks. Then we’ll be cool, right? Or I’ll tell you what, I’ll let this non-white kid I tutor have a little tiny bite and then get annoyed when he isn’t more grateful. I mean, doesn’t he realize how expensive that cake was?’
Off with his head.
But seriously, BL comes across as a man incapable of having fun. When he hears The New Yorker wants to publish his story he feels, not joy, not even a sense of accomplishment, just ‘a small frisson.’ This being autofiction that aspires to be as hyper-meta as possible (and probably needing to fill a few pages) BL includes the story in 10:04. ‘The Golden Vanity’ is a thinly disguised version of what we’ve been reading up until now, and it’s so boring compared to the raw materials that went into it that it makes the best case so far that autofiction is superior to its prefix-less counterpart.
But back to Ben Lerner and his glacial soul. Let’s take a quiz. Upon learning he’ll be receiving a $270,000 advance on the strength of this short story, that’s after taxes and the cut from his agent, BL reacts by:
a. crying tears of uncontrollable joy
b. leaping onto the table and performing a victory dance
d. going on a multiple-day cocaine bender that involves several Asian-American prostitutes
e. dispassionately asking his agent over and over why anybody would pay so much for his book given that he’s not a very popular writer
It’s e. Of course it’s e.
But he wasn’t this dispassionate. He recalls a party he attended as an undergrad where he met a woman who kissed him on the cheek before she left, ‘and the next thing I knew I was running through light snow back to my dorm, laughing aloud from an excess of joy like the schoolboy that I was. I had an overwhelming sense of the world’s possibility and plentitude; the massive, luminous spheres burned above me without irony…’
Of course he never sees her again, but let’s back up a second. Is he saying those luminous spheres burn with irony today? And what exactly would an ironic sun look like? Or sarcastic stars? Mocking moons? Are there comets with hidden motives? Maybe BL should stay away from using the I word in any context. The literary fairy has blessed BL with many gifts, but irony is not one of them. This is a guy who thinks simply acknowledging the existence of political signifiers like Occupy and Goldman Sachs in the same book, with no commentary, no shift in tone or language, means something. There’s nothing to imply any feelings whatsoever about either of these institutions, nothing to make us think he has an opinion, conscious or otherwise, about anything.
What BL may not realize is because there’s no POV, then the book’s apathy just supports the status quo. When he acknowledges the existence of a problem like climate change, it’s discussed in the same dispassionate, ‘well whatcha gonna do’ tone most people use to talk about the, well, weather.
Which is not to say that BL’s a bad writer; there’s a passage about revolving doors and the way we process tragedy that is stunningly good.
Maybe part of the problem lies in BL’s poetry background. He suffers from a thing I call ‘The Poet’s Dilemma.’ Because the sharpest tool in the poet’s toolbox, the thing that most separates them from their prose counterparts, is (in theory) their ability to evoke, to conjure up feelings through words, then to come out and directly say what you’re thinking can feel a bit like cheating, like you’re more of an essayist than an artist. But while suggesting emotions can be effective and moving in the space of a page or two, it gets old watching someone try to maintain that stance for two hundred. And while all this understatedness may or may not work as art (how you feel about this is probably directly tied to your own understatedness), it sure as shit doesn’t say anything about The Way We Live Today. Because 21st century life may be a lot of things, but understated is probably the last word I’d use. Life today is loud and messy. It’s urgent and filled with contradictions. It bristles with aimless kinetic energy and is shouting to be heard above the cacophony of other voices. And it’s here where BL’s endless calm meandering vacillations start to turn rancid. 10:04 is soaked in what Anna Schectman recently and so perfectly described as ‘the white male privilege of demurral, hesitation, and noncommitment… the institutionally guaranteed authority of the mumble—an authority parading as authenticity.’ His apathy feels offensive because it’s a product of his luxury. If BL displays any misgivings about the ruling class, it’s only in the hope that he’ll be spared the guillotine if the peasants revolt.
Anyway, by the end of the book, Alex is finally pregnant, BL’s role in the child’s life still yet to be determined. And because nothing gets resolved you reach the end of the book slightly confused. Wait, is that it? And as far as that narrative journey from irony to sincerity, I’m not seeing any tonal difference on the last page. There’s an attempt at sentimentality in the final sentence that comes across as half-hearted and tacked on, possibly at gunpoint: ‘I know it is hard to understand / I am with you, and I know how it is.’
Which would be sweet if BL had understood anything about a single person at any point in his book up until then, or if he had showed any real interest in other human beings during the course of his book, but the only person I imagine getting to that sentence and not muttering under their breath, ‘Yeah, fuck you,’ is someone who has a lot in common with Ben Lerner. And while I’m sure there are a handful of people like him in the world, most of us very emphatically are not.
Again, what’s weird about both of these books and the way they bury their authors’ actual (I’m assuming…I’m hoping) view of the world under deep layers of subtext, is that we live in an age when people loudly and constantly say what they mean and mean what they say, especially online. There’s very little room for subtlety on Twitter, or Tumblr, or Facebook. Millennials are even defined in part by their difficulty in recognizing sarcasm and sudden shifts in tone (the theory goes that since so much of the writing they’ve been exposed to throughout their lives—through texts/e-mails/advertising etc.—has been sincere & straightforward, they’re conditioned to take everything at face value). But if the only way these books aren’t deathless pieces of shit is to assume there’s some kind of unstated irony at work (e.g. the two books’ narrators are intended to be clueless solipsists who are unaware of their own awfulness as some kind of statement), then they’ve failed to capture anything at all about the zeitgeist. The internet does cynicism; it does snark; it does parody; it does brutally mocking eviscerations. Very rarely does coy, understated irony go viral.
As a counter-example, here’s a song from Farrah Abraham’s 2012 album My Teenage Dream Ended.
To me there is nothing more definingly 21st century than hearing someone desperately (and poorly) sing ‘I want to be alone’ while simultaneously longing to be heard by as many people as possible. The entire album is cyborg and bleeding, ridiculous and heartfelt, sincere and exploitative, brilliant and ridiculous, contrived and insane—an endless series of contradictions that makes me feel like I’m moving in rhythm with the universe when I hear it. To immerse yourself in FA’s world is to experience a 21st century shamanistic journey through digital life and minor celebrity that Cohen and Lerner are too uptight, too self-conscious, and too clinging to their intellectual bonafides to even consider experiencing. FA, and others like her, push the envelope of shallowness every day, they tunnel so fiercely into themselves, until it becomes its own depth, and that is what it means to be Alive Right Now. Her music is as passionate and desperate and startling and flat as a Twitter feed. And when she sings the album’s first line, ‘I can only put so much in a song. I know no situation is exactly the same,’ she gets more across about the limitations of art (autofiction in particular) and the difficulties in bridging the gap between one’s own pain and the pain of others than JC or BL—who both seem impervious to any psychic pain around them—manage to get across in a thousand combined pages.
But avant-garde music aside, it’s galling to see how much credit these books are getting for being about The Way We Live Now when there are so many better, more deserving books out there that actually say something about this endlessly oxymornoic age: Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity, James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods. All of these feel more Now, with more interesting Lives, and with a We that is more widely defined.
Instead, we get The Way We Live Now as told from the POV of the narrowest sliver of We imaginable. Which isn’t that much of a surprise. The publishing industry may be smart enough to know it has a problem, but it takes a special kind of stupid to assume that the writers best qualified to talk about How We Live Now don’t participate in social media, attended elite colleges, and break out in hives any time they have to leave NYC. I guess it’s not enough that the 1% own everything, their artistic class is now expected to speak for us as well. Because in the literary world, The Way We Live Now is all of us have money and our souls are made of ice.
And in the end, Cohen and Lerner only paint their narrators as helpless victims because to express any autonomy or desire in their work would go against their nature. They’re actually quite happy with the current political and economic setup, one that favors them (privileged, educated, upper-class, and connected) at the expense of others. And in this sense, Cohen and Lerner do manage to embody one defining characteristic of 21st century life: the hysterical fear of becoming anonymous.
I don’t know. Maybe twenty years from now these books will be looked back on as psychic tremors that forecasted the revolution to come, and the authors’ (vague, meaningless) discomfort about their financial blessings will take on new significance: a sense that underfed chickens would soon be coming home to roost, an anxiety of affluence. And if that day ever comes, then both of these books will be redeemed as art; they will be seen as harbingers of their own impending doom.