When Writers Put Themselves Into the Story

Joshua Cohen, the author of Book of Numbers, discusses Dostoyevsky’s The Double, in which the author becomes a presence in the novella.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

As a teenager, the novelist Joshua Cohen loved Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double for its eerie conceit, in which a man encounters a stranger who looks exactly like himself. But Cohen returns to the book, today, for the strange, thrilling moment that opens the fourth chapter: In an unusual narrative salvo, Dostoyevsky dispenses with his third-person narration and begins speaking to the reader as himself.

In our conversation for this series, Cohen said this gesture dramatizes the anxiety novelists feel about the texts they write—the books that, in a sense, become doppelgängers stalking their creator. After examining the literary origins of The Double’s story, Cohen explained his attraction to writers (from Cervantes to David Foster Wallace) who write themselves into their fictions, his mistrust of the third-person narrative voice, and the crises novelists face in the Internet age: Who’s talking? Who’s listening? And how should we speak?

Cohen’s new novel, Book of Numbers, is a kind of doubles story, too; the book’s two main characters share their author’s name. The premise: Joshua Cohen, a floundering novelist, is hired to ghostwrite the memoir of Joshua Cohen, founder of Tetration—a Google-sized tech company redefining the Internet search. The money’s good, but there’s a catch. The non-disclosure agreement is so muscular that, in order to complete the book, Joshua Cohen (the writer) must essentially erase himself, effectively becoming his subject. As we become increasingly connected, Cohen suggests, we must cherish—more than ever—the power of the singular, individual voice.

In a review for The New York Times, Dwight Garner called Book of Numbers “more impressive than all but a few novels published so far this decade.” Joshua Cohen is also author of the novel Witz and the story collection Four New Messages, among other books. A critic for Harper’s, he lives in New York City, and spoke to me by phone.

Joshua Cohen: I first read Dostoyevsky when I was 14 years old, and was entranced. Dostoyevsky truly is a writer for 14-year-olds, and I mean that in the most approving way—approving of his energy, and rage, his endless pessimism, and endless innocence. There’s something especially adolescent—especially half-cracked, and sweaty—about The Double, which might’ve been the first book of his I read. When Golyadkin bumps into a stranger who appears to be him, or exactly like him, we aren’t sure if our hero’s haunted by a ghost, or suffering a psychosis. Which is to say, we aren’t sure which world we’re in. Ancient or modern? Magic or science? Ultimately, the plot will pass judgment—but until then, the ambiguity intrigues.

The doubles tale found its way from folklore into literature during the Enlightenment, whose concern for individual rights was romanticized into two separate, even contradictory, strains. That destiny or fate could be controlled, but urges couldn’t—that if you wanted to leave hearth and home, you needed to. Impulses were imperatives: To go abroad, self-fictionalize, and become another person.

The earliest doubles tales take on two forms. One is where the double escapes—from your reflection in the mirror, or in the water—or else it’s your shadow that escapes, and ventures into the world to do its business, or to do your business: desublimating all your appetites, acting out all your suppressed or repressed desires. Traditionally, this version concludes with a character dueling with his double—to assert his claim over a woman, or just over his original uniqueness. But if the double dies in the duel, the original dies too—it’s a fairly convoluted way of committing suicide.

Then there’s the second form of the doubles tale, where the double emerges from the original, only to return, and become reintegrated—through an occult spell, or a technological feat. But the doubling of this version is most frequently bound to cycles, as if indoor urban humanity were attempting to more firmly root itself in the seasons and phases from which it’d been alienated—from the full moon that causes hairs and snouts to sprout and sends werewolves out to go ravage the fields.

For the first type I’d cite the Germans. In E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Geschichte vom verlornen Spiegelbilde [The Story of the Lost Reflection], a stolid, gloomy burgher visits Italy, is enchanted by a local temptress, and leaves his double behind in her embrace. For the second type I’d cite the English. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde, the hero decides on the terms of his transformation, in a process that’s explained not through the supernatural but the natural, or at least through biochemistry.

Other classics of the genre have been hybrids: Hoffmann’s Die Doppeltgänger [sic] is the story of conjoined twins who are also writers—rivals in art, rivals in body—each fighting to be, but unable to be, independent of the other. Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson is the story of how guilt splits a personality into schizophrenia: The second self is the conscience, always latent, or mental, and manifesting physically only when the original cheats at cards, or tries to cheat with a married woman.

To Freudians, the double is the nocturnal counterpart to the daytime bourgeois—the embodiment of the id, dispensing with law, religious strictures, monogamy, propriety. To Marxists, the double is the mascot of mass-production: a person who looks and sounds and acts like you, who doubles your capacity for labor. The double’s existence represents the strain against time, and against limited resources of energy: the double works more so you can play more, produces more so you can consume more. It’s a fantasy of slavery—of having, if not being, your own slave.

The Double, the book by Dostoyevsky, can survive any reading—even a deconstructive reading, in which the primal doubling isn’t between the hero Golyadkin and his identical avatar, but between Golyadkin and the author himself.

Golyadkin is a civil servant in St. Petersburg, but hasn’t climbed the ranks: He’s unintentionally too crude, rude, and curt, and has a tendency to blunder through every encounter. Enamored of his supervisor’s daughter, Klara, he shows up to her birthday party early and stays too late, insults his fellow guests by making nervous remarks, makes a fool of himself by trying to dance, and finally gets himself ejected. It’s at that point, wandering the embankment by the Neva, that he finally comes face to face with the man who turns out to be him. Another him.

Reading about Dostoyevsky’s life during the writing of The Double reinforces the suspicion that he shared Golyadkin’s predicament. By which I mean that Dostoyevsky’s not just writing a doubles story, he’s writing a doubled story: a version of Gogol’s The Overcoat, with a few wrinkles of The Nose. He’s also trying to write a second book to surpass, or equal, his first—Poor Folk, which was praised and even financially successful. The Double’s phantom themes are the author’s anxieties: about not being as talented as Gogol, or even as his own younger self.

This anxiety breaks out in the extraordinarily strange, break-the-fourth-wall opening to the book’s fourth chapter. It begins with a description of that party, which Golyadkin’s essentially crashing:

That day the birthday of Klara Olsufyevna […] was being celebrated by a brilliant and sumptuous dinner-party, such as had not been seen for many a long day within the walls of the flats in the neighbourhood of Ismailovsky Bridge—a dinner more like some Balthazar’s feast, with a suggestion of something Babylonian in its brilliant luxury and style, with Veuve-Clicquot champagne, with oysters and fruit from Eliseyev’s and Milyutin’s, with all sorts of fatted calves, and all grades of the government service. This festive day was to conclude with a brilliant ball, a small birthday ball, but yet brilliant in its taste, its distinction and its style …

An upscale ball deserves an upscale writer, is the implication: Dostoyevsky elevates his language, mock-elevates it, makes reference to the Bible and Semitic Antiquity, name-checks Veuve-Clicquot. But then this posturing’s suddenly interrupted—by the authorial “I,” Golyadkin-clumsy, barging in, and directly addressing the reader:

Oh, if I were a poet! such as Homer or Pushkin, I mean, of course; with any lesser talent one would not venture—I should certainly have painted all that glorious day for you, oh, my readers, with a free brush and brilliant colours! Yes, I should begin my poem with my dinner, I should lay special stress on that striking and solemn moment when the first goblet was raised to the honour of the queen of the fete. I should describe to you the guests plunged in a reverent silence and expectation, as eloquent as the rhetoric of Demosthenes …

I should describe this scene, is how Dostoyevsky narrates this scene, I should describe its food and drink and music and dress—but I can’t, because I’m not welcome here either, as a writer. Dostoyevsky laments not being up to the task, even as he’s completing the task—which is not to write about a revel, so much as it is to exorcise self-doubt.

This rhetorical doubling reinforces the book’s theme in a manner far more sophisticated than Dostoyevsky is usually given credit for. Perhaps the decision to do this wasn’t a decision, though—perhaps it was unconscious.

I spent my 20s unhealthily fascinated by the fact that fiction writers had been appearing as writers in their own fictions forever—as early as the ages of Cervantes and Sterne, as late as the ages of Gilbert Sorrentino, William H. Gass, Robert Coover, John Barth, William T. Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace. My reading of their texts had two consequences: It made me mistrust the unacknowledged narrators of third-person omniscience, and confirmed my debt to Dostoyevsky, for introducing me to this technique.

I was deep into my 30s, however, before realizing that Dostoyevsky’s neuroses weren’t exclusively literary—because if the writer’s anxious about how to write, the hero’s anxious about how to speak, and the reader must be too.

I’ll explain: Throughout The Double Golyadakin gets himself into trouble because he’s never sure how to express himself in public—outside his own head, or outside his own internal monologue. He doesn’t know how to present himself socially—or, in a contemporary phrasing, he doesn’t know which self to present, struggling as he is with a decaying class system, stagnant bureaucracy, Godlessness, materialism, precarity, and dread—all of which have rendered him incapable of appropriate behavior, or even of defining appropriate behavior, in front of friends, lovers, colleagues, the church, the state, himself. And I think we’re living in a culture like that today.

Writers today are writing for an unprecedentedly vast audience. It’s daunting if not damaging to speak to everyone directly. The larger your audience, the smaller your vocabulary, and range of referents—the fewer your means of expression. You can’t rely on the luxury of intimacy.

Say you’re an American novelist, published by the largest publishing house in the world. Their goal is to make as much money from you as possible, to have as many people read your book in as many formats as possible. How can you hope to speak intimately to the numbers of people that represent the book sales required? But also how can you not? This bind becomes even more fraught the more you’re writing from a minority perspective: You’re forced to explain your subculture to an incomprehensible and uncomprehending mass, and so you become the translator, the interpreter, the totem or symbol of your subculture, and not an individual, not an artist.

An immense audience makes the discernment of humor more difficult, for example. Humor has a lot to do with shit and piss and fucking—it’s impossible, or nearly impossible, to be funny while working clean. Humor has a lot to do with saying the odious aloud, and so ridding yourself of shame. But with an audience the size of the world, there’s always going to be someone offended by something. Not to mention that pretentious word: “discourse,” which with an increase in the volume of communications, and communicants, must be compressed, reduced, for practicality’s sake. Expressions are to be quantified—qualifications are extraneous.

Incidentally, Dostoyevsky can be funny, but never on purpose.

Historically, many periods—many genres of certain periods—have benefitted from accepted, common valences of rhetoric: Think of form letters, think of crime fiction. What we call the modern is just the awareness of an antipathy between what we want to say and how it needs to be said to be comprehended—to be widely comprehended.

The books that have been the most meaningful to me have been made of this clash, between individual and audience. They’re doubles of neither, and yet of both.