Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The sculpted novel

Full title: Tree of Codes
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Genre: Fiction; novel
Attributes: 285p, hard cover
Publisher: Visual Editions (2010)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Everything in this book hinges on technique. Jonathan Safran Foer, who once said he wanted to write a book that read like a sculpture (to be palpable, to give the reader a tactile experience as well as an intellectual one) produced, with Tree of Codes, one such object that transgresses the materiality of publishing. The volume is compelling primarily because of its design. The text is literally sculpted into the body of a rectangular object provided with pages and covers; in other words, into something we traditionally call ‘a printed book.’ Tree of Codes is, indeed, a book – nobody would say it was anything else. But by using a cut-out technique which must have given the printers some serious headaches, Safran Foer proposes something else: he proposes a literal cutting not only through the texture of an object but also through the texture of a text.

Source: Visual Editions
In essence, Tree of Codes is a parasitic volume living upon a previously written collection of short stories by the Jewish short story writer, Bruno Schultz. To Safran Foer, Schultz is a frequent topic of discussion. He has even written a foreword to The Street of Crocodiles, which is the basis of the book discussed here.
Due to the ‘carving’ technique, which leaves out very few words on a page (empty pages, with only a rim around, to frame the space where text could have been, are common) language starts on a surprising journey, based on sharp imagery and metaphors that cut to the core of the literary gesture displayed here in the form of an experiment in rewriting.
The story resulting from Safran Foer’s exercise is centred on a family tableau, where the father reigns in a ghost-like manner. (Hamlet? Why not?) The subject is not new to the author. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the book turned into a film where Tom Hanks plays the role of the lost father, dwells in a similar region. In Tree of Codes too, the father figure appears to be lost and sought after by a narrator with a penchant for strong memories, mostly visual, mostly evocative.
"My father's face [...] dissolved into a stillness, a sad expression, sadder than human feeling."
Not to mention that Bruno Schulz too spoke of the father figure as central: as central as a regret; central even to his narrator’s experience of (can you guess?) a book. As in the chapter that opens The Sanatorium of the Sign of the Hourglass.

And so, Tree of Codes turns out to be a book that reads in an hour, but hovers in the mind for a much longer time. It is multi-layered, restless, clever, and demands constant reconsideration of the very experience of reading.