2 / 2 / Jonathan Safran Foer, Tree of Codes

James Elkins

[This material was originally posted on Writing with Images. Please see that site, and this one, for the context of these notes.]

 

Each page of this book is perforated, die-cut, so you see through parts of it, and read phrases, words, parts of words, and punctuation marks deep into the book. So there’s the physical book itself, the thing, which needs to be understood. Then — a separate issue, and the separation is the problem — there’s the story that can be read on each page, in sequence, as a book is usually read.

As an object, the book is very attractive. If you flip through the pages you see the empty spaces that tunnel down through the book. The edges of the empty pages are filled with words, which sit on little shelves of paper leaning out into the space. You see that each page is constructed as a rectangular frame of paper, made sturdy by five or six horizontal strips. The words and punctuation marks are appended to that framework, like the tabs in an extruded-plastic toy. If you open the book wide, and try to read everything you see, you get an attractive chaos:

With secret spring, oneyco [that’s part of the word “honeycombed,” showing through from a later page] without transition, myself in an even
wider, more sumptuous interior
my father kept. and his desk a

and so forth. (p. 82)

More could be said about the book as an object. It’s intriguing and attractive except for the cover, which is unaccountably a freehand rendering of dots. There would seem to be little reason for freehand painting in a project that is all about geometry, precision, and rectilinear cutting; and dots don’t make sense at all, either in relation to the book as an object, or to its title, or to its contents.

Next is the experience of reading. To actually read the book, you have to hold each individual page up by itself, and fold the other pages back as far as possible. (If you don’t hold up one page at a time, then your reading of the sentences on any given page will be hopelessly confused by the appearance of words from other pages.) Because the perfect binding is strong, it is impossible to hold each page straight in front of you, so you end up reading at an angle. It would also be possible to read by slipping a blank sheet of paper behind each page. Either way, reading is artificial, and that artificiality does not seem to be linked to the themes of the book or the physical appearance of the book. Foer and his designers do not seem to have planned reading at the same time they planned the construction of the book itself: an example of the separation of parts that makes this book problematic.[

And then there’s the question of content, and that is where “Tree of Codes” becomes especially interesting. The book is presented as a die-cut, redacted version of Bruno Schulz’s “Street of Crocodiles.” But it’s not even necessary to consult Schulz’s book to see that’s not so, because the words that appear in Foer’s book have such capacious white margins around them that they could not have been cut from any actual printed edition of Schulz’s book. That is most apparent when it comes to periods and other punctuation, which Foer sometimes leaves isolated on the page, without words around them. They have white space on both sides, in a way that periods don’t.

Consulting copies of the English translation of the book, I conclude that Foer printed out and formatted his own version of the book — either that, or once he chose the words he wanted to retain, he reformatted the book so they were spaced in ways he liked. For example p. 67 begins:

My father kept in his desk a

beautiful map of our city

There are two missing lines of text, in Foer’s book, between those two redacted lines of text. But the original (in English) is:

“My father kept in the lower drawer of his desk and old and beautiful map…”

(That is the Penguin Classics edition, for which Foer wrote an Introduction.) So the two cut-out lines in Foer’s book are invented. That matters, because it means this is not a redacted version of a book (a physical object) but of a text (Schulz’s text).

And then finally, at the level of meaning, the book becomes very puzzling. If you were to read just this book, and not know anything about Schulz’s book, you’d find an evocative, spare, sometimes mystical, often abstract family drama. It is quite different in tone, speed, content, and meaning from Schulz’s original. Sometimes Foer picks words that summarize or evoke Schulz’s text, so that it seems he is interested in making a purer, less dense version of the original. Other times he changes the emphasis and the meaning of Schulz’s writing. As I read, I began to be interested more in what Foer intended readers to think he was doing, than I was in the story he was presenting in his own book. Some examples of those puzzles:

“Tree of Codes” is made of fragments of “Street of Crocodiles.” There are places in “Tree of Codes” where it seems that Foer’s interest is in deepening the mysteries that fascinated Schulz — the idea that meaning can be found in overlooked details, in deepening twilights, in strangely long summers, in abandoned and rooms, in empty hallways and streets, in comets, in patterns and coincidences, and in subtle phenomena that go unnoticed. This is the old-fashioned, late-Romantic Foer, the one involved in Jewish and Central European early modernism, which does not interest me. In context of these practices, the world becomes more mysterious, in a simple sense, when parts of it are missing — at least that is what would be implied.

The section called “Street of Crocodiles” in the book of that name describes a street, which in Foer’s version turns into a meditation on codes and what they might mean. At some points Foer’s intervention becomes self-reflexive, pointing to his book itself, in the way that the “Shem the Penman” passages of “Finnegans Wake” refer to the book itself:

” The tree of cod es was

better than a paper imitation

.”

we read on p. 97; in the Penguin edition, p. 72, has

“The Street of Crocodiles was a concession of our city of modernity and metropolitan corruption. Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better than a paper imitation…”

Foer’s book loses all the politics, the meditations on class and poverty, the specificity of time and place; it substitutes, at times, a placid postmodernism. That’s especially hard to understand given Foer’s Introduction to Schulz’s book in the Penguin edition, and his “Author’s Afterword” in this book. In his own book he re-uses some passages from the earlier introduction, including a crucial few lines describing how when he first read it he realized it was a great book, but he also saw that he didn’t like it:

“The language was too heightened, the images too magical and precarious, the yearnings too dire, the sense of loss too palpable–everything was comedy or tragedy.”

Here, by implication, he has worked to make the book into something that he can like as well as love, or love as well as admire. That same line is reframed in the “Author’s Afterword” so it becomes part of a myth of origin that he fantasizes lies behind Schulz’s book:

“Often, while working on this book, I had the strong sensation that “The Street of Crocodiles” must have, itself, been the product of a similar act of exhumation.” (p. 139)

Then follows the sentence I quoted, along with some others, but this time not as criticism but as signs that “The sentences feel too unlikely to have been created on purpose.” I am assuming Foer doesn’t actually believe this: he doesn’t think Schulz is an Oulipo-style writer. But then it becomes difficult to understand exactly what his response to Schulz’s book is. Is it an attempt to come to terms with an author he admires by reducing him, not only by reformatting his book and cutting out most of his text, but also by pretending that Schulz himself was partly constrained by a similar rule-bound exercise? Or is it an attempt to articulate the deepest “yearnings,” the most intense “loss,” the purest “tragedy,” by excising their cultural contexts?

I do not mind this vacillation, which it seems to me is the book’s real purpose and heart. What I do not like is the way the physical experience of reading, and the visual experiences of looking, looking askance, and looking through, are not linked to these themes of admiration, love, and distaste. The visual and the physical are present in a generic way: the die-cut pages are there in the same form throughout the reading experience, even while the story develops and the resonances with the original change. This inattention to the specifics of the visual is also the case in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel,” in which visual interpolations are largely ignored, or treated as generic images, in the text. All that is disappointing for readers who want to pay the same kind of attention to the visual as to the written. But it is very rare to find a work of fiction that engages the visual in such a concerted fashion, and rare to find a book that takes so long just to begin to describe.

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