Thursday, 17 February 2011

14/111 - Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer

I remember hearing about this book towards the end of 2010, and bring surprised by how cool the idea sounded. I had no idea it was being published (I had assumed it was a private project), let alone that it was going to be published in the UK and available one day while I was in Foyle’s passing some time. It’s published over here by Visual Editions, who are a teeny but evidently very cool publisher, and I’m a little bit breath-taken by what they’ve produced.

A short explanation of Tree of Codes: Jonathan Safran Foer has taken a translation of the story The Street of Crocodiles, written by Polish author Bruno Schulz, and carved his own story from that text. He has cleaved away all the words he did not want, and what we’re left with are the words Jonathan Safran Foer has chosen for his story. In this case, the words which not selected have literally been cut out from the page.

The book itself is amazing. The jacket design is lovely and the inside kind of made me feel magical. It’s a gorgeous thing. I’ve read elsewhere that people have remarked that it’s more of a sculpture than a book. It boggles the mind to look at it, and when I first opened it, I wasn’t even sure HOW to read it – the holes on the page create a layering effect where words from other pages show through. Evidently, I figured it out.

When I was doing a little research before writing this post, I was surprised by public opinion towards Jonathan Safran Foer. I don’t know if it’s just something I’ve never come across, or if it’s not all that widespread, but I was a little surprised at how much some people seem to dislike him. (I’ve read Eating Animals, and I enjoyed it very much. I don’t yet know how I’ll feel about Everything is Illuminated; we’ll have to see.) There was a lot of stuff I read online accusing him of being smug (and his supporters deeming that jealousy). There was also some animosity regarding this work. I don’t have any strong feelings about him as a human either way.

The book itself has a complicated origin. It’s carved from another story, and some people seem to have taken offense at the fact that Jonathan Safran Foer has called this work ‘his own’ even though it is made from that other body of work. It’s all a bit semantical. One of the biggest issues is that presumably, Jonathan Safran Foer worked from a translation of Street of Crocodiles – of which I’m sure there are many. I’m not going to get into a huge debate about fiction in translation here, but obviously there are huge and complicated discussions associated with translation, creativity and ownership of work. My own copy of Street of Crocodiles is published by Penguin, and translated by Celina Wieniewska. I haven’t yet been able to work out from the book if this is the translation Jonathan Safran Foer worked with, as there is no acknowledgement of this in my edition of Tree of Codes.

The face of a child will tell you the #1 enemy is HATE

Anyway, leaving aside all that, I still think this is a fucking spectacular book, and I was pleased to read it. Jonathan Safran Foer's reputation aside, it’s just cool. It also reminded me fondly of the God Loves Poetry project, which composes poems by a similar method of erasure. They take hateful flyers from the Westboro Baptist Church and instead of cutting, they black out the words and letters they want left out, and a poem is left in its place. Lovely. There are also other books and projects, like Tom Phillips’ Humument which is also really cool.

Now onto the book itself: it’s a quick read. It only took me around 45 minutes to read from start to finish (the pages are only printed on one side). I found myself getting lost at first, so I decided to read it aloud to myself. It reads a lot like poetry (and I also prefer to whisper poetry aloud to myself when I read it, which is not often), and I had similar hesitations that I do with poetry over punctuation and pausing, but you get the hang of it in the end. Just make sure to keep an eye out for those phantom floating commas and full stops!

As far as plot, I couldn’t really tell you what this book is 'about'. There really is no narrative in the traditional sense to speak of. It’s about mental breakdown and death, and dreams, and masks, and family, and it all kind of meshes together like a very pretty fever-dream. It’s creepy and abstract and hypnotic.

Some reviewers have questioned whether this would have been published just as a stand-alone piece, and I’d have to say, I’m not entirely sure. It is gorgeous and I don’t think it’s a gimmick, as some people have unfairly termed it. Did I finish it feeling satisfied? Not entirely – but I’m now going to move onto Bruno Schulz’s work and see how I feel about that.

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