Read an Excerpt from Joshua Cohen's Tour-de-Force Novel 'Book of Numbers'

An excerpt from the novelist's astonishing new book about a failed writer and an eccentric billionaire, both named Joshua Cohen, in the internet age.

by Joshua Cohen
Jun 9 2015, 1:58pm

Joshua Cohen portrait by Sam Clarke

VICE is proud to present this excerpt from Joshua Cohen's astonishing and orchestral new novel, Book of Numbers, which comes out today. Thomas Morton's profile of the author appears in our June fiction issue.

An excerpt from BOOK OF NUMBERS

From 'Book of Numbers,' by Joshua Cohen. Copyright 2015 by Joshua Cohen. Published by Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC

Yehoshuah Kohen was born in the shtetl of Bershad, on the Southern Bug, halfway between Kiev and Odessa, Russian Empire, presently Ukraine. The old century was dying, and the new century lurking just beyond the fields , lying in wait in the snowy woods would be no consolation. By the goyim Christians, it was 1870/71. In an heirloom Bible, the family Kohen recorded only FUCK ME BEGIN LATER


from the Palo Alto sessions: We were born in the year of the microprocessor, LGBT Pride Month, the Day of the Death of Mohammed [June 8, 1971]. M-Unit a retired gender studies professor at UC Berkeley, D-Unit an engineer, Xerox-PARC. Basically he was one of the inventors of personal computing. Which meant, he used to say, he took computing personally. We grew up in a white splancher in Crescent Park [Palo Alto]. A good neighborhood too überaware of its goodness. Lots of cool subdued kids. Lots of cool hippie parents. Kindergarten was at Berkeley. A totally egalitarian viro. M-Unit and D-Unit alternated breakfasts, spelt pancakes, stevia quinoa. We had chore charts, surprise room cleanliness inspections. We collected dinosaur eggs, coprolite, ambered insects, pyrite. We memorized the chart of Mendeleev, which hung on our ceiling. We were picked on at school for our [INCOMPREHENSIBLE—wardrobe?], which was sewn by parental friend [INCOMPREHENSIBLE—Nancy Apt?], the back fabrics of the chinos and buttondowns different from the fabrics in front. We were raised to mistrust brands, to be a proactive consumer, a prosumer. All adults were academics. Primiparousness was the norm.


Communication is a useful [tool [way] to understand Cohen's family. Cohen's was a family [consumed subsumed] by communication [communications/communications systems]: His father, Abraham, was one of the prime innovators of laid many of the most important foundations for worked on a team that helped establish a few vital technical specifications for the internet—before the web, before the technology had any commercial, industrial, or even military? applications. Not many companies can afford a pure research arm, but Xerox, the photocopy giant, could, and endowed PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in 1970 ? thousands of miles away from Xerox corporate headquarters (in Rochester, New York). The PARCys, as employees were called, were free to pursue their projects with minimal supervision, but with minimal support. The innovations that came out of their labs, particularly from the Computer Science Division, set the standards for modern computing. Though Xerox invested in developing none of them, though development costs would've been prohibitive.

In 1972, the Computer Science Division built the Alto, the world's first personal computer [IS THIS TRUE?], which featured a wordprocessing program called Wupiwug, which its programmer Hal Lahasky always claimed was a monster from a scifi book by a writer he'd never name, though it was only an acronym for "What U Press Is What U Get," an indication that the keystrokes a user made were reflected directly onscreen, and not on a teletype printout. [INSERT HERE A LINE ABOUT LANGUAGES: BASIC, LISP.]

Nascent computing displayed its output on a tick of tape. The monitor followed, a face to face the user's, light hurled at a pane of glass. The last frontier, or what was regarded as the last frontier, was also the first, paper again. The laserprinter both continued and undermined the Xerox tradition: in that it reproduced, but from a nonexistent original, putting to paper the page of the screen (parenthetically, the laserprinter was the only PARC innovation Xerox ever brought to market, in 1977 debuting the 9700, which averaged TK?? pages per minute, and retailed for $??K). (The output of nascent computing was just text, and not its formatting—to Abraham, the two were inseparable.) The problems he had set out to solve involved what today is called "desktop publishing," or "design"—namely, how to perfectly reproduce a print artifact onscreen, and then, outrageously, how to render it manipulatable, perfectly printable again.

[However, building on phototelegraphy, which had been around since the 19th century, and the shift from wire to wireless facsimile, which occurred just after the turn of the 20th, Xerox's main interest in documents remained in their reproduction, and in their reproduction through transmission, not in their manipulation. All distances had to be bridgeable, as far as Xerox was concerned—the distance between PARC and Rochester Stamford, CT, to which Xerox moved its HQ in 19??, was not.] While Abraham's colleagues were focused on [creating the] transmission protocols between computers[, and computers and printers], and constructing the Ethernet—a local area network [explain] that allowed machines, and the people who made them, to communicate with one another virtually—Abraham was alone in his fixation. He spent 14 years at PARC huddled with scanners that still functioned with tubes, surrounded by hunched engineers who'd already been graduated to transistors and circuits.

While the character recognition program was relatively simple to code [WHAT WAS IT CALLED?], as were the modifications to Wupiwug that allowed user modification of the recognized characters, it was the image that proved frustrating. The images scanned well [do scanners work the same way as photocopiers or fax?], but Abraham was never able to code an interface that pleased him. Every graphics program he invented was either too rudimentary, or [the opposite of rudimentary?] intricate. He experimented with raster and vector, with dividing the graphics into 2D "spatches," into 3D "layers," but his lack of progress led to a lack of resource availability, and in 1984, with PARC reorganized under new management, Abraham's unit was mothballed, and he was transferred to another [BUT WHICH?].

He would joke to his son that this was the fate of the Jews—to be stymied by the image.

[[OPENING VERSION 1 BIOGRAPHY: One hundred years before PARC's inception, Yehoshuah Kohen was born in 1870, in the shtetl of Bershad, on the Southern Bug, halfway between Kiev and Odessa, Russian Empire, presently Ukraine.

Bershad was a textile town, and antisemitism was a familiar thread. Upon returning from a spell at the yeshiva of Koretz, Yehoshuah married Chava Friedgant, the youngest daughter of a family of weavers, and it was weaving that supported Yehoshuah's life of study and prayer, and the life of their son, Yosef, born 1895. In 18??, however, a pogrom was sparked [a pogrom sparked how?], and burned the Jewish textile warehouse [but only one warehouse?]. Theirs was a tragedy so common to the milieu that it can only become banal by repetition.

Regardless—wagon to Uman, trains to Lvov, Warsaw, Berlin, Hamburg—the family took a steamship to America, bundling with them a single trunk, and Yosef. Ellis Island records attest to an arrival of April 4, 1901. The year of the Edison battery and the transatlantic radio, the death of Queen Victoria and the assassination of McKinley, annus Rooseveltus. The first day of Passover 5661.

They settled on Orchard Street, on the East Side of New York City, where Yehoshuah—now "Cohen"—found a job as an iceman, initially cutting that substance from the East River, before being promoted to assistant deliverer (an innate sense for horses and geography), to chief deliverer (developing English and manners), cut manager, assistant payroll. But when his payroll chief married the daughter of the ice concern's owner, he left. The man was a fellow immigrant, but from Uzhgorod[, Ungvar in Yiddish], who considered Yehoshuah a peasant[, which he was]. But he was also a natural businessman.

In 1909, with money he'd saved and income from Chava's lacemaking, Yehoshuah purchased a building in Coney Island, Brooklyn—freezing cellar down below, living quarters up top—from which he'd deliver his ice to every borough, and even unto the wilds of New Jersey, where he buried Chava in 1918 (influenza).

A year later, their only son, the Americanized "Joseph"—who'd spent his late teens working nights for his father while attending Stuyvesant High School during the day, and his early 20s working days while attending City College at night—was married to Eve Leopold, a German American Jewess and fellow student at [City College? whose family, all of whom were involved with industrial refrigerator/freezer manufacturing, disapproved of the match, and attempted to snub Joseph by not taking him into the business, instead granting him a nonexclusive license to retail their products, which he did, to outstanding success, by exploiting the newly emerging home market, introducing puffs of the Russian Pale into American households by van and truck as far afield as Connecticut].

[Yehoshuah died in 1967, Joseph in 1977. Colon cancer—both?]

In 1930, Joseph and Eve had a daughter, Lily (accountant, d. 1998? how?), and, in 1933, a son, Abraham (named for Eve Leopold's grandfather? great-uncle?, Abraham Leopold, a pioneer of gas absorption technology? or aqua ammonia?).

"Abs" was a loving, and beloved, son—in true immigrant fashion, Joseph and Eve would have done anything for him, but in true first- generation American fashion, "Abs" had required nothing, and had accomplished all he had on scholarship: Harvard (bachelor's in electrical engineering), MIT (SM, electrical engineering), Stanford (PhD, electrical engineering). Twelve years of education had cost his parents nothing.

If Abs ever disappointed his parents it wasn't with any computer coupling, rather with a coupling more personal [more what?]. Joseph and Eve still held out hope that their son would return home after he finished his PhD, and Abs seemed to placate them throughout 1969 by interviewing for positions at IBM, Honeywell, Multics, and Bolt, Beranek, and Newman [was he offered any?]. But he had no intention of taking a job with any East Coast firm. Either because of the women out west, or the war in Vietnam.

Joseph's pedes plani (flatfeet) had earned his deferral from WWI, and Abs had been too young for conscription into WWII, too II-S (enrolled in essential studies) for Korea , and old enough that by Vietnam he wasn't fit for anything besides servicing mainframes[, which were the size of jungle temples, and brought napalm from the sky] .

On Christmas Day 1969, Abs had accepted the only offer he'd been waiting for[, from the celebrated Computer Science Laboratory of Xerox-PARC]

On New Year's Eve, 1970, two men wandered San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury in a celebratory mood. Abs and Hal Lahasky had been rivals at Stanford, but now that both were newly minted PARCys, the time had come to be friends. Firecrackers were going off in the streets [WERE THEY?]. Love-beaded flower-children danced in the gutters with sparklers [DID THEY?]. The house [DESCRIPTION OF WOOD BOHEMIAN GINGERBREAD TRIM SF HOUSE] belonged to a cousin/friend of Lahasky's, but the party going on inside it, spilling out onto the porch and the street, was so packed that Abs never met her/him, and lost Lahasky within a moment of arriving [REWRITE/CUT: NO LAHASKY].

Marijuana was being passed around, which Abs was used to, but then, judging by the [crazy bucknakedish people], there was also LSD. He avoided the punch and went for beer. People stood [at a distance from the hifi?] "drinking draft." That's what they told him the game was called. You drank the number of drinks of your draft number. Until you hit it, or died. Luckily, also unluckily, the numbers were low. Still, a guy [in a Mao suit?] had to be held standing by, or was trying for a piggyback ride from, a [pretty young] woman.

"Let me help," Abs said.

"I got it," she said, and slumped the guy up against a banister. "Chivalry is misogyny."

Then she turned away just as he said, "And chauvinist on a double word score is 36 points in Scrabble."

She paused, "Heavy."

"And a pair of Yahtzee dice can be rolled in 36 combinations."

"So you're a [spaz/square]?"

"I'm 36."

"That's your draft number?"

"I mean I'm 36 years old."

"Bummer." ["far out"?]

A month before, on the first day of December, the Selective Service System—an agency of the US government responsible for staffing the armed forces—[had reached its omnipotent eagle's talons into a dimestore fishbowl] and chosen 366 blue plastic capsules, each of which had been [impregnated] with a paper slip marked with a number corresponding to a day of 1944, which was a leap year. The first number drawn was 258, and the 258th day of that year was September 14. The last was 160, and the 160th day was June 8. Anyone born on June 8 got the highest draft number, 366, and would be among the last to be inducted, while anyone born on September 14 got the lowest, 1, and would be among the first —the other 364 days of 1944 all drew draft numbers between them .

A subsequent drawing was held with the 26 letters of the alphabet, to determine the order in which the men born on the same day would be called. The guy [in bellbottoms/pirate shirt] groveling at the woman's [quilt skirt] had a birthday of October 26, which was the seventh number picked. His last name was Negrón, and N was the fifth letter picked, and his first was Witold, and W was the ninth. Witold Negrón had done seven shots [of rum?], then five, then nine. Then pounded a beer[?]. He was going to smuggle himself to Vancouver, and the woman told Abs she was considering tagging along.

Her name was Sari Le Vay, and she was a PhD student of comparative linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley[, at which she'd later teach linguistics and gender studies]. She was just finishing up her classwork but was finding it difficult to begin her dissertation [WHAT WAS ABS'S DISSERTATION? DID HE HAVE TO DO ONE?], she said. Her academic field was not respected, women the world over weren't respected, the current party Central Committee in Hanoi had the lowest number of women of any socialist or communist governing body worldwide, zero, and beyond all that, it was like America had already slaughtered her boyfriend, whose body was laid out on the stairs. She rolled her own Bali Shag, drank Mohawk ginger brandy, popped bennies. She had opinions on how Bundists treated their wives and Trotsky treated the blacks. Self-determination was not a transitional demand. She'd registered Chicanos to vote in Oakland and dated them. Men and women both.

Out on the porch they pondered space. She had theories beyond MLK and the Kennedys. NASA landed on the moon, but it also controlled monsoon season. Kissinger sabotaged the peacetalks to tilt the election from Humphrey.

"Like this lottery shitcrock," she said. "Like we're all equal and even and fair in America and who gets picked to go die is just one big serendipity—I don't think so. It can't be an accident that everyone I know numbered low is either a minority or an immigrant. You're a numbers guy—you check the numbers."

That's what Abs did the very next morning [BUT WHAT DID HE DO THE REST OF THE NIGHT?]—he found the numbers in The Stanford Daily [IN HIS APARTMENT OR?]. But they had nothing to do with minorities or immigrants. Though there was something about them still perturbing. Or something about Sari had left him smitten. He got her number out of the phonebook and wrote it down at the top of [a page]. Under it he listed all the draft numbers, in 29 rows for the shortest month, 31 rows for the longest, across 12 monthly columns, making a crippled square of days with 18 extras dangling at bottom [like orphans trying to hang onto a Huey whomping out of Saigon].

He got up and into his [car type?] to find a computer, because the sooner this got done, the sooner he could call her. But Stanford's lab was closed for New Year's and PARC wasn't finished yet and didn't have any computers. The IBM 360s and SDS Sigmas were still trucking on the interstate. He shouldn't have shown up at work until [?].

He went back to Perry Lane [his neighborhood?], and took the integers by hand, put together scatters, chi matrices, demarchic distributions. He called up Lahasky to hash it out at the Nut House [WHICH WAS?], even bothered their mutual dissertation advisor [UNINTELLIGIBLE NAME]. The math was just elementary statistics, the advisor's encouragement was exciting, the rest was galling. [As a computer person] It was galling that the US government had entrusted such an undertaking to anything but computers.

"Lottocracy, or, Casting Democracy in with the Lots" was carried by all the major news outlets, in reduced layreader form, over the second week of January [(the days of draft numbers 101, 224, 306, 199, and 194)], though the complete article was published only in July, in a special War Math issue of Science. Abs's scrawled charts had been typeset, and the epigraph was from the Book of Proverbs: "The lot causeth contentions to cease, and parteth between the mighty." The paper opened by [IN THAT PEDANTIC AUTODIDACTIC SNIDE WAY TECHNOCRATS HAVE OF KNOWING, NEVER THINKING] surveying Biblical and Classical literature pertaining to divination by lots (or cleromancy), before recounting the supplanting of deistic caprice by the laws of nature and rules of logic [erudition supplied by Rabbi Maurice Fienberg of Congregation Beyt Am, Palo Alto]. It went on to define differences between the "arbitrary" and the "random" (the former a determination of will/discretion, the latter hypothetically indeterminate, or chance), and the basic principles of sortition (the differences between chance samplings of volunteers and of the general population): ["QUOTE"]

The second section explained the Selective Service regulations for the draft lottery[, the third was tragic, the fourth, a farce]

The third section opened by asserting that in a year with 366 days the average lottery number for each month should be situated in the middle—at 183. But in this lottery the average draft number for the first six months of the year was higher (for people born in January, the average draft number was 201.2), while the ADN for the last six months was lower (for people born in December, the ADN was 121.5). The correlation between one's date of birth and draft number indicated a regression curve of −.226. An unflawed lottery would've maintained a level correlation at zero, a straight flatline throughout the year.

[In sum, the closer you were born to the start of things, the better.]

The paper then pointed out that people are not born with uniform distribution throughout the year[ and especially not with uniform distribution in the leap years]. It proved this by parsing datasets from the US Public Health Service to determine that the birthrates in the first quarters of each year between 1900 and 1940 [EARLIEST RECORDS? TO THE WWII DRAFT?] were a mean 12.2% above average[, confirming that summers between the equinoctes have normally been the busiest periods of conception]. Further[—through a sinister twist that might only be explained through a syncrasy of biochemistry, sex trends, and God—]an average of 64.2% of all babies born during the first quarters of 1900–1940 were male. This meant that early year male babies were doubly insured against conscription—firstly by their birthdates, and then secondly by their disproportionate sample size.

All [samples of] men who shared the same birthday were inducted by order of their names, last, middle, and first weighted accordingly, and ranked in the lotteried sequence: an alphabet that began with J and ended with V[ for Victory]. This policy spelled discrimination for men who lacked middle names, and made no provision for the grading of men with identical birthdates and names.

It was this nameranking that comprised the lottery's purest bias, apparently. Equations weren't required to understand that the scores of Johnsons and McNamaras and Nixons and Mitchells and Hoovers and Helmses in America tended to have middle names while the singularly ethnic Witold Negróns tended not to.

The paper's fourth section, its conclusion: In preparation for the lottery drawing, Abs wrote, the days and so the months had been encapsulated consecutively. Meaning that the capsules containing the papers with the January dates were assembled first, the February capsules were assembled second, and so on through the calendar, with each month's encapsulations poured into a handcranked drum, a mechanical bingo spinner [like a wheel for a gerbil or hamster], upon completion. This meant that the January capsules were mixed with the others 11x, the February capsules mixed 10x, and so on, through the November capsules, which were mixed with the others 2x, and the December capsules, mixed only 1x. A final condemnation cited the Selective Service's own report that the capsules had been poured into the fishbowl from the side of the drum that'd held the earlier days of the year, so that the latter less thoroughly spun days remained atop[ floating like a scum].

On the day "Lottocracy, or, Casting Democracy in with the Lots" was published in a special War Math issue of Science in July 1970, six months after Sari inspired it Abs proposed to Sari. Theirs being an engagement very preoccupied with numbers—figures, equations—it bears notice that though they were married at Congregation Beyt Am, in Palo Alto, on January 1, 1971, their son and only child was born on June 8.

Witold Negrón, 8th Battalion, 4th Artillery, was mortally wounded in Operation Lam Son 719 between Khe Sanh forward supply base and Tchepone, Laos, March 1971.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Witz), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for the New York Times, London Review of Books, Bookforum, the Forward, and others. He is a critic for Harper's Magazine and lives in New York City.