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Cut and Dry: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes

By posted at 6:01 am on January 14, 2011 5

Jonathan Franzen has always been outspoken about his disdain of e-readers. In an interview with The AV Club, he said the Kindle “makes everything seem unsubstantial,” that “the words seem more arbitrary, less intrinsically valuable.” Yet Franzen writes the kinds of novels that are best read on the Kindle. They demand attention solely to the text, the kind of undistracted reading environment that makes e-readers so appealing — not to mention the perk of carrying a small electronic device instead of a 700-page hardcover copy of Freedom.

covercoverIt seems fitting that Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Tree of Codes was published around the same Christmas season when the Kindle became Amazon’s best-selling product ever. The Kindle does away with all manners of a novel’s physical form and design; Tree of Codes exists solely to embrace those things, and to be embraced, but gently.

The die-cut interior of Tree of Codes is made up of select words, carefully re-assembled from Foer’s favorite novel, Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, to create an entirely new narrative. (Cut ten letters from the original title and you get Tree of Codes.) If Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the book equivalent of a mash up, perhaps Tree of Codes is akin to 8-bit music: it’s both a reduction and reinterpretation of another work. Visually, the sparse prose and overwhelming negative space leaves a stunning impression, (accurately captured in what might be the least-annoying book trailer of all time). It’s a wonderful experiment in what a book can be, and also home to a mediocre novel.

What Foer has done is a little gimmicky and not entirely new — William Burroughs and Brion Gyson did a similar cut-up book in the ‘60s — but the reading experience is an absorbing challenge. The first thing you have to do with Tree of Codes is figure out how to read it. I don’t mean interpreting the text — the prose, though occasionally aloof, reads as a fairly straightforward narrative — but how to physically hold the book. Because of Tree’s die-cut pages, it’s hard to tell what words belong on the page you’re looking at and what’s on the next page or two. After a few minutes, I figured out that the best method was to keep a finger under the page I was reading, bending it slightly, to give the words more depth (again, I mean physical depth).

Some readers have taken to inserting a blank sheet of paper behind each page, but doing that feels like a denial of the book’s design. There’s something haunting about seeing what lays ahead, just out of focus. Tree of Codes is intent on distracting its audience and making them conscious of the reading experience. The pages are also fragile, and I found myself holding Tree of Codes with extra care. According to Foer, the binding had to be paperback — if it was hardcover, the book would “collapse in on itself.” It shows consideration to the book not as an art object, but a book as a thing you read.

The format of a book doesn’t need to be challenging or difficult. But if authors really want to defend the idea of the physical book, they need to consider how the medium actually affects the reading experience. The example that comes to mind is Dave Eggers, who writes in QuarkXPress instead of a regular word processor, which might explain why McSweeney’s does just fine without selling books in ePub format.

Despite it’s unconventional form, Tree of Codes is actually a natural step for Foer, as a novelist who has toyed with visual elements like type, white space, and color in his earlier works. In an interview with The Morning News in 2005 (just after the release of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Foer said he “really like[d] books as objects, as little intimate sculptures that you have a real interaction with.”

Sculpture is a medium that is appreciated for its form, texture, its third dimension; sculpture is also a medium that isn’t necessarily interacted with, even touched, unless you want to be escorted to the curb by museum security guards. Really, the sculpture comparison does a disservice to what a book really is: a mass-produced object that you spend hours holding.

It’s just too bad that in the case of Tree of Codes, the reading experience is far more interesting than the actual novel. Holding the book, you can feel an absence of weight in the middle. Even within 3,000 words, Tree of Codes inconsistently waivers from abstract poignance (“The tree stood with the arms upraised and screamed and screamed.”) to the sort of pretentious mediocrity you might find in DeviantArt poetry (“I could feel waves of laid bare, of dreams.”). It boils down to whether or not you find Foer’s lyricism to be poetic or merely sentimental.

But credit is due to Foer for taking Schultz’s work and making it his own. Trees features the familiar fallible perspective from Everything is Illuminated and the Freudian relationships from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. There are also allusions to a vague disaster — is it a plague or the Holocaust? — that amounts to an equally ambiguous tragedy that is better felt than understood.

When I finished Tree of Codes, I placed it in on my bookshelf. But it felt as if it didn’t belong stuffed next to my copy of Freedom — which has endured being borrowed by three different people since August. Tree of Codes might be a much worse novel than Freedom, but it’s a delicate book. There are thousands of copies of Tree of Codes, and yet mine feels special. It’s a reminder that the book is a precious thing.





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5 Responses to “Cut and Dry: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes”

  1. Cassie McDaniel
    at 3:29 pm on January 15, 2011

    I’ve been wondering if Tree of Codes weren’t a bit gimmicky. Wasn’t sure whether to shell out the forty bucks for the dissection of someone else’s work, and if I did, whether it would be for the literary or artistic merit. You have to admire Foer for trying something different, but as a reader a good story is a good story or it isn’t. Thanks for the insight.

  2. Herb Levy
    at 11:52 pm on January 15, 2011

    There are several earlier works in a similar vein that weren’t published with holes in the pages.

    A Humument by the British visual artist Tom Phillips is a project in which the pages of a book called A Human Document are painted over leaving various words, parts of words and letters that form an often oblique narrative. Phillips continues to work on this text and has now altered several entire copies of the book as well as single pages resulting in different editions of the work. http://www.humument.com/

    The poet and cookbook author Ronald Johnson created Radi os in which most of the words on each of the pages of an edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost are deleted, leaving an aerated contemporary poetic text.

    Other poets have created similar works, including Stephen Ratclliffe’s [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG & Jen Bervin’s Nets, both of which delete words, phrases and lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

  3. Ryan
    at 3:35 pm on January 18, 2011

    Aside from Freedom being a huge hardcover book, I don’t understand this-
    “Franzen writes the kinds of novels that are best read on the Kindle. They demand attention solely to the text, the kind of undistracted reading environment that makes e-readers so appealing…”

    I guess I thought Franzen’s novels were the kind best read isolated as a book while magazines, journals, short stories, and smaller things were better for a Kindle- because a Kindle offers more distractions?

  4. Kevin
    at 6:41 pm on January 18, 2011

    @Ryan: I actually meant the opposite — I think the Kindle offers an almost distraction-free reading environment. It strips a novel of all its design elements, so you’re interacting with just the text. A physical book actually takes things like typography and design into consideration, which are elements that most authors don’t concern themselves with.

    Thanks for reading.

  5. Restless Reader » Blog Archive » Literary News & Links – January 3, 2011
    at 6:18 pm on February 3, 2011

    [...] Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Tree of Codes, is worth getting your hands on – even if you don’t read it. It’s truly a unique piece of art. Read more about it at The Millions. [...]

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