One of our favorite writers-to-hate Jonathan Safran Foer has a new book—or sculpture, as he describes it—called Tree of Codes. Foer slices—literally—words out of his favorite book, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz. I haven’t read the book (Foer’s not Schulz’s), or even held it in my hands, but something about the premise is striking, memorable, so memorable that it sounds familiar… But more on that later.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Foer talks about the materiality of the book. He says he likes to break the spine, take it into the bath with him, etc. And I admire these things because I agree. I like books too. So why is it that I agree with many of his sentiments and yet dislike the idea? Is it just because it’s Foer? Ultimately, yes, there’s something about Foer that makes me doubt his authenticity. But that’s my issue, not his. And I’m sure there are tons of people who will probably piss themselves with delight at his cleverness. I’m just not one of them.
But his pages are striking. Look:
And yet, like I said earlier, lordy, this seems familiar. Oh, yes, that’s right. It seems familiar because I have seen something like it before. Where was it? What was it? Oh, yeah, that’s right. It’s an old idea.
Furthermore, the strength of a book like Tree of Codes lies in the reader’s unfamiliarity with a book like Tom Phillips’ A Humument. For one, Phillips’ text is by far more visually striking, while serving the same function. They both obstruct an original text by bringing into focus certain words. They both create new narratives.
Phillips does something different though. The erasure of words becomes the flesh of the text. The book becomes richer, denser. Foer’s erasure literally leaves nothing but a skeleton. Whereas Phillips draws attention to Mallock’s A Human Document by raising choice words above the din of his artwork, Foer effectively deems irrelevant Schulz’s unchosen words by cutting them out, discarding them, throwing them away.
Yes, both Philips and Foer have the same aim: they both work to create a new narrative out of an old one, they’re both “finding poetry”—whatever—but their modes of creation yield different ends. I would argue Phillips creates a homage, whereas Foer becomes the artist cherry picking this and that word, trashing what he sees as irrelevant. In that Vanity Fair interview, he says The Street of Crocodiles is his favorite book. When I read my favorite books, I see each word as integral, relevant, building towards a sentence, a narrative. I could not approach Proust or Beckett with an x-acto knife, or worse yet, a pair of blunt scissors. Maybe we just have different understanding of text. Yes, that’s probably it. Indeed.
[Thank you to Jeff Barbeau for telling me about Foer’s new book.]