Decoding Schulz: Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer

on Friday, May 27, 2011
About half way through reading his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I began to suspect that Jonathan Safran Foer was something of a master illusionist. His tricks are spectacular, but ultimately they are all smoke and mirrors. Not that this revelation stopped me reading him. Eating Animals, his tract on ethical vegetarianism, is a well thought out piece of moral argument with a truly wonderful opening chapter. And I got extremely excited when I heard that his next project would be an experimental engagement with one of my favourite writers, Bruno Schulz. I put in my order well before the release date and waited. And waited. And waited. One trick Foer can't pull off, it seems, is getting his publishers to release the bloody thing on time!

Anyway, some six months later Tree of Codes finally landed in my mailbox. For those of you who have been living on Planet Grisham, it is neither a novel nor a short story. At its most basic, Tree of Codes is a cut and paste exercise with Schulz's classic story "The Street of Crocodiles". Excision, re-arrangement and absurd spacial relations are used to construct a supposedly organic new text that creates meaning from a work already deeply imbued with artistic significance. The pages are literally cut to pieces and the story must be read by lifting each page and reading only those words that have survived the snip. If you lay the page flat, random words from pages to come filter through the gaps, causing a confusing dreamlike flurry of verbiage. It is, to say the least, intriguing. The story itself, however, is not a patch on Schulz's original. The two share the same esoteric Walserian qualities, but Schulz was the real deal and Foer, I hate to say, just isn't.

As a physical object I loved Tree of Codes. It is a singularly persuasive argument against electronic reading - there is no way this could be recreated on a Kindle or iPad screen. However, as a reading experience it was an experiment that, if it were in the science world, would yield little to no result. The findings, as they say, would be inconclusive. Perhaps, Foer would have been better off making meaning from the meaningless (say, a shopping catalogue or dictionary). Or perhaps he should have tried to make meaning from literary dross (an instantly forgettable short story in Reader's Digest or something by Candace Bushnell). In his Author's Afterward, Foer says that he considered both these options but chose The Street of Crocodiles because he thought the raw material for the experiment needed to have significant literary merit in its own right. Unfortunately, his affection for the original seems to have clouded his judgement and we are left, yet again, with some very beautiful smoke and mirrors.


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