Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tree of Codes

Painstakingly cut from the fabric of an English translation of Polish author Bruno Schulz's work, The Street of Crocodiles, Tree of Codes is a unique and compelling novel of dark poetry and heartbreak by Jonathan Safran Foer. The book follows the “luminous journey” of the protagonist as he searches for independence and the ability to cope with his father's madness and death (p. 84). The storyline is primarily an interior examination of a deteriorating life, and Foer explores what happens when the fine line between internal psyche and external reality grows even finer as nightmares climb out of dreams to enter the real world. Fans of Foer's earlier work, such as Everything is Illuminated, will recognize his introspective tone, and Tree of Codes also shares his earlier interest in the intimacies of family dynamics.

The coolest thing about the book is probably its experimental structure which wholeheartedly embraces the physicality of books: format and content are beautifully and inseparably linked through a seldom used die-cut technique. Foer has literally carved away Schulz's words to create a new story out of their pieces; because of this method the text is quite light on each individual page, but another consequence is that the sentences, though often short, are spaced irregularly and are not always straightforward or easy to follow. A phrase, such as “the calendar is a moment, a colorful lie,” spread out across the page may deliver a powerful visual or sensation, but its meaning is more difficult to interpret in the context of the plot (p. 122). Another effect of the physical form of the book is the visual depth created through the die-cuts; between the cut-outs in each page, a glimpse of the words to come is revealed. And even though these previews might not make any literal sense, they still set the tone of the novel by foreshadowing emotions and images to come. The beautiful poetical language and metaphorical details are some of the signature aspects found in Tree of Codes. Foer's construction of “dialogue swollen with darkness” often reads like poetry, and it is not only his choice of words, but also his use of blank space that contributes to the complex and sophisticated style; in the novel Foer writes that “the silence talked,” and so too does Foer find a way to speak through the emptiness on the page (p. 14).

The novel has received a lot of mixed reviews since it came out a little more than a year ago: some critics hailing it as genius and others degrading Foer to an English grad student with an exacto blade and a recycled idea. While genius is a bold term to assign to anyone, I'm tempted to say that in this case, Foer deserves it. The book is just plain cool. And if Foer owes a lot to the beautiful language of The Street of Crocodiles and Bruno Schulz, he has still created an unusual visual artifact and through it given us an extraordinary reading experience.

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