The Age of Exaggerated Hopes: Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Tree of Codes”
If you are new here, you probably haven’t been acquainted with my incredibly biased love for Jonathan Safran Foer. Sure, he is an assface in interviews, and sure, most of his writing is geared towards making you feel like loneliest you’ve ever been, but I like it. I love it. Despite his “gimmickry” and his seemingly constant pursuit of strangers’ eyerolls, I dig all of it.
It’s kind of hard to write about anything Foer releases, because I know that at least a small part of me will love it, regardless, and I know that people know this and they might judge me. But, whatever. I have my reasons. I was really nervous about his latest “experiment,” just because I knew that people are going to write it off as another gimmick without even reading it. “Tree of Codes” is London-based publisher, Visual Editions’s first major title. According to an interview, they wrote him and said, “We can’t pay you, but you can make anything.” And Foer, always up to taking on challenges, didn’t hold back. What “Tree of Codes” is is a sculptural work, where Foer “erases” parts from Bruno Schulz’ “The Street of Crocodiles,” a collection of interconnected short stories.
Each page is then a reconstruction of what has already been built. Foer is quick to stress that the work belongs to him, because of accusations of potential plagiarism. I like how he puts it:
“It’s not really sampling, because that implies taking something out of its context and inserting it into a new context. A better analogy might be carving a stone. Of course one can carve any number of things from a block of marble, but one is still dependent on the marble. And marble is not like granite, which is not like chalk. Has a sculpture taken away from the block of marble? Not really. Has it added? Not really. “Tree of Codes” took “The Street of Crocodiles” as its starting point and made something new.”
And all biases aside, I can see what he meant by that. I haven’t personally read Schulz’ work, but I would wager that it is very different piece, and also creates a very different experience. Reading the book takes you about half an hour, even with the various causes for stopping and pausing. It’s a little difficult, but it lets you spend time with what you just read.
Story-wise, the plot is simple enough (yes, there’s a plot!) but it’s the turns of phrases, the way he connects words he chooses to leave behind, threading them across gaps of literal and metaphorical space. I like remembering what I read, and usually, I will just go ahead and write on a book. Obviously, I couldn’t do it with this one. It is such a special book, in the way it was made and the way it affects those that come across it.
Resurfacing from the initial shock and wonder caused by its physicality, I can honestly say that it was a good book, touching on a haunting narrative of loss, sadness, and familial relationships. The narrative itself is poetic, slightly less lucid than most fiction, but it retains the tone of most of Foer’s works, and fits the story it is telling. There is a certain sense of darkness and mystery, a surreal sort of quality fitting to the world he has created.
It’s difficult to comprehend how a work as breathtaking as this exists, but I guess with enough time, and dedication, as well as the presence of people who believe and support what you do, it is possible. Part of what makes this venture such an amazing one is the process behind it. This book was turned down by countless printers before they came across one in Belgium who saw it as a possibility, instead of writing it off as something that cannot be done. Foer went through many manuscripts of an English translation of Schulz’ work before he was able to create something that he was proud of. The process took at least a year.
I’ve been thinking a lot about things that concern technology and how it somehow (almost) dehumanizes our experiences as people. I think this book is relevant right now, and speaks volumes about how we create our connections and relationships, with the technology and the means we have at hand. Because of that, I do believe that it is really something worth looking into. Aside from coming up with a stunning, both in its tactility and its narrative, book, Foer raises questions about how we relate to the things that we encounter, and how different, still, it is to interact with an actual, physical object than with something over a screen.
From the write-up by Olaffur Eliasson:
In our world of screens, he welds narrative, materiality, and our reading experience into a book that remembers it actually has a body.
It also affected me on the level of craft and creative endeavors. For as long as I can remember, I have always wrestled between Carina the writer and Carina the designer. Whenever people asked me what I wanted to be, what I was, I always draw a blank. Am I a designer, as my day job dictates? Am I a writer, as what I do on my freedom says? Am I an artist (maybe only in my dreams)? Why couldn’t I just be Carina, the person who likes to make things? I’ve appended most of my business cards with “I make pretty things,” because I couldn’t succinctly explain what it was that I did. And you know, reading this New York Times interview with Foer made me wholly okay with that description:
After all this, do you see yourself as an author or a designer? Aren’t they often one and the same?
I see myself as someone who makes things. Definitions have never done anything but constrain.
And then I am suddenly so free, and suddenly so excited about everything I am about to do.
There are so many other things I can say about this book, but perhaps I’ll save that for another time. I hope that you get to experience this book, the way it was intended to be experienced, whether or not you get to buy the book. Please find someone you can borrow from, someone you can share with. It’s such a beautiful exercise and I am still reeling in awe.
(Vapid notes are vapid. I hope you are not able to read my messy handwriting.)