Tree of Codes

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Jonathan Safran Foer

Tree of Codes is what Jonathan Safran Foer calls a die-cut book, one that has been created by taking an already existing text and erasing words and even letters until you have something new. In this case the original text was Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles – sTREE OF CrOcoDilES (you see how it’s done?) The book, an extraordinary artefact in itself, has been produced by Visual Editions, who most recently released the loose leaf Composition No. 1 (a precursor of B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates). The erasures are represented by gaps in the page allowing the reader to see the pages beyond and turning each page into a delicate spider web of text.

Although over a hundred pages long, with only a few words on each page the novel does not take long to read, and the story it tells, such as it is, is a brief one, focusing on a single family: father, mother and narrator. The style is necessarily poetic:

“During / this winter my father / would spend hours / in corners / as if / searching for / Mother / and / emerge / covered with dust / and cobwebs / his eyes / froze / for long periods / .”

I have reproduced the gaps (as you would the lines in poetry) because they are part of the reading process; even more so than with poetry, the eye must search for the next word, avoiding the distraction of future words glimpsed through the gaps. This creates a solemn tone brightened by the felicitous use of found language, for example:

“I had a hidden resentment against / mother for / Father’s death. She had / condemned / him / to / mirrors / .”

(I did wonder as I read how many of these phrases were Foer’s and how many Schulz’s. Michel Faber, who made the effort to find out, has said, “you notice quite often that what seems like an audacious coinage is already there in the original,” but goes on to point out that the novel also contains plenty of instances where Foer combines words and phrases form genuinely unconnected sentences in felicitous new ways.”)

Though most of the novel has an apparently domestic setting, and there is a sense of claustrophobia created by the dynamics of the family, the city outside also oppresses, from the opening scene where we find children greeting each other “with masks painted on their faces” and a “sleeping garden” screaming, to the end, where we find a “shapeless mob without face” and the city is described as spreading over the country. Knowing Foer’s previous work and Bruno Schulz’s history (he was killed by the Nazis and much of his work was lost) it is not surprising that we find intimations of the Holocaust in the novel.

In this sense the novel’s form is ideal: the gaps and erasures representing loss. Those absences remind us both of the dead and of Schulz’s missing words, those he wrote that were lost and those he never had the chance to write. The gaps also create a sense of inevitability. While this exists in all books to some extent, when you can actually see the words pages ahead the inescapable nature of the narrative is emphasised. Finally, the very fragility of the pages suggests how we should reverence art and life.

Danger rating: given that the book is not cheap, you may find a part of your concentration taken up with taking care not to tear it. However, this simply emphasise what a wonderful object it is.

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