Writers toil for years to squeeze even an ounce of their soul into their work, but when it comes to the acknowledgements page, they happily bow before convention. It’s rare to find an author’s note that isn’t a list of names paired with phrases of gratitude, each paragraph rising in pitch as if announcing the next rank in a hierarchy of angels, rarer still to find one that quietly captures the full agony and ecstasy of its author’s being. On the final page of Some Trick, her first collection of short stories, Helen DeWitt writes:
Over the years visitors to my blog (paperpools.blogspot.de) have generously helped me live to fight another day. While The Last Samurai was out of print buyers of secondhand copies would send donations to the beleaguered author. More recently two dedicated readers have been thinking of ways to approach the challenge in a less haphazard manner; anyone who would like to be involved should contact me at [email protected] to be put in touch.
Some context: In 2000, when DeWitt was 43, her acclaimed debut The Last Samurai came out with Miramax Books. It was a victory after years of setbacks and menial jobs, but also the lone highlight in what became her long praying mantis courtship with the publishing industry, which began with a war over the novel’s typesetting and led to two suicide attempts. After Miramax Books went bankrupt, The Last Samurai fell into contractual purgatory, and DeWitt’s subsequent novels were either delayed for a decade (Lightning Rods), pulled due to technical challenges (Your Name Here) or deemed unpublishable. The familiar ivy of poverty re-encircled her life, even as critical appreciation for both Lightning Rods and The Last Samurai continued to grow; the latter was recently a broad consensus pick for the 21st century’s most canonical novel.
And so here is one our foremost authors, poor but nonetheless foremost, inviting her readers not just to send her a few bucks (which she does later in the note), but to get involved in a project that is, presumably then, more elaborate than direct donation, that involves joining a dedicated network of DeWitt supporters, and to do so by writing said foremost author at her personal email account. Can you imagine any of the Didions, Franzens, Ferrantes or Bolaños whom she beat out in the canon rankings extending that request to the world? Even less rarified authors would be warned off by an inkling that this was a thing one simply does not do.
DeWitt can ignore that inkling in part because she’s made a public persona out of questioning its merits, especially when it comes to what she calls “normative publishing.” In her interviews, wielding the sort of rationalism more commonly associated with economists, tech entrepreneurs and utilitarians, she picks apart the industry’s conventions, like the puritanical separation of authors and type-setters, the unwillingness to experiment with new revenue models, especially ones perfected by the art world, and even the norm of meetings editors in cafés, where table space is too limited for spreading out one’s papers. My favorite of her frustrations is how when she met with prospective agents she couldn’t get them to agree to squeeze as much marketing juice as possible from any future suicides she attempted. “If I could have sold off a suicide attempt,” she said in a 2008 interview, “I would have had more time for reading Spinoza.” Duh.
It’s not surprising, then, that she might try out unusual methods of financing. I can imagine her calculating out Spinoza time wasted from extraneous emails vs. Spinoza time gained from projected extra income (naturally I’d like to message her and ask what the scheme is all about, except then I remember my own income and have to admit that I’d be tipping the scales toward time wasted). But even a positive net expected value wouldn’t account for the note. To put such an entreaty out in the world requires something rarer than strict rationality; it requires, in large amounts and in equal measure, optimism and desperation. If DeWitt were merely desperate, she wouldn’t be the sort of person who burned bridges over type-setting; she’d write The Last Samurai derivatives and own a brownstone in Brooklyn. If she were merely an optimist, she would have accepted her lot and put her faith in posterity. Put the two together and you get one of our best writers leveraging her stature and her inbox for what is in all likelihood a moonshot of a fundraising scheme.
You also get what defines her fiction, even more so than the two themes most often used to describe it, genius and making ends meet. True, The Last Samurai begins with Sibylla, a single mother, earning scraps as a freelancer while teaching her son Ludo to speak a dozen languages and do advanced math, but what gives the novel its wheels is Ludo growing up to have the same need and daring as his creator. At 11 years old, he disobeys his mother and sets out to identify and meet his biological father, a travel writer named Val Peters. When he figures out that Peters is a mediocrity, Ludo is disappointed, but he doesn’t despair. He simply reasons that he should let Peters down easy and find someone better, and begins showing up at the doors of various impressive men, armed with a con man’s set of ruses and an appraising eye.
Ludo is, to quote another of DeWitt’s stories, a “go-getter … that quintessential American thing to be,” an archetype that reappears throughout her fiction. DeWitt’s characters don’t suffer from boredom, midlife crises, existential dread or a surplus of time. They engage with the world, and, like DeWitt, they do so with unusual requests and ingenious proposals. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” Peter, a highly successful fiction writer, wants to work with a mathematically literate editor for his next book, and he worries that his agent, Jim, won’t find one through the usual auction process. Struggling to convince Jim why this matters so much, Peter makes an unheard of but seemingly foolproof proposal: He offers an 85 percent commission, or roughly half a million dollars, in exchange for Jim finding him the right editor. “As ours is a business relationship,” he explains, “… it is entirely reasonable for me to determine my own ends and offer financial compensation to you for the inconvenience of promoting them.” Jim, though, brushes him off, making “a number of friendly American remarks” about being happy with the standard commission, friendly yet in a way that implies he has taken offense.
In her fiction DeWitt gets to be clear-sighted about how and why ingenious proposals fail, not without some irony: “Climbers” explores the pitfalls of dedicated readers trying to help an author they love. Peter Dijkstra, a reclusive Dutch writer, receives a series of emails from American literary types, utterly out of the blue, suggesting that a famous American writer is willing to give Dijkstra his apartment and all his things, out of respect for the European’s genius. It’s a strange and sudden altruism, born out of a New York loft-party conversation, but one that Dijkstra, pondering his debts, wants to talk advantage of, if only he can figure out how: “The fact that a fame-kissed young American would happily hand over all his worldly goods did not make it socially straightforward to write asking for a gift of 20,000 euros.” He doesn’t know how to survey, at a distance, the terrain of his admirers’ enthusiasm. Can he ask for a lifetime supply of cigarettes? Too shocking. A subscription to the Vienna Philharmonic? “An American … would see [such a gift] as too finely tuned.” Just how fully would the American writer move out of his apartment? “He could not think of any sentences that would ascertain the position in a socially acceptable fashion.”
The difficulty of ascertaining other people’s positions, and of conveying one’s own, is where many of these ingenious proposals run into trouble. DeWitt describes the problem more explicitly in “Sexual Codes of the Europeans,” a story that opens with a guidebook of systems developed in five cities for indicating certain sexual preferences. In Bilbao, for instance, people set out items on café tables to indicate the material in or upon which they wish to make love, whether sand or milk or acacia blossom honey. In Stuttgart, people leave out plastic figurines indicating a preference for a uniformed stranger, whether a Canadian Mountie or an Air Singapore stewardess. The practice is explained as arising from a scarcity of language:
The words for sexual practices and preferences are not included in a book for travelers, nor are the words that would accompany the speech acts of requesting a practice, expressing a preference. Perhaps you think: yes, but the words and speech acts must be known to the natives! If you buy a book in your own country you will find words for practices. You will not find an account of the speech acts in which the words may be deployed. The scarcity, it seems, is not one of vocabulary but one of speech acts.
More specifically, there is a scarcity of socially acceptable speech acts, or speech acts that carry only the precise information that one wishes to convey, with no surplus or remainder. When Peter offers 85 percent of the sale of his book in exchange for the right editor, what a robot or an economist might hear as a simple exchange sounds to Jim like a purely figurative hyperbole that politely says, “I’m worried you’re not going to do a good job.” Naturally, Jim is offended, as would be the airline employees who saw you walking around in your “I Prefer Sex With Air Singapore Stewardesses” T-shirt. As would be most literary agents when they realize you see them as the kind of person who would peddle their client’s suicide. To have a preference or proposal, even one justified by reason, is not enough. If the proposal is at all strange, one must also invent a sufficiently dexterous speech act, capable of slipping past the alarm system of prejudice, taboo and convention that protects us.
Perhaps it’s this idea that led DeWitt to write “The Wrong Stuff,” the essay she published in the LARB to accompany Some Trick. If her author’s note is the strangest example of its genre, “The Wrong Stuff” holds the crown among those now equally ubiquitous things, half artist statement and half college essay, used to publicize new fiction releases. It begins with a question Hans Ulrich Obrist, the renowned artistic director for Serpentine Galleries, posed to Zadie Smith, about whether she has any unrealized literary projects. DeWitt envies the question:
I could have explained that I had a hundred-odd unrealized projects immured on my hard drive, projects of which agents had said No Publisher Will Allow, projects that could change the face of 21st-century fiction. Projects that were not even books, so no agent or editor would know what to do with them. I would need a week to set out materials on tables, tack papers to walls, and talk nonstop.
Having dangled this prize, DeWitt offers the requisite humility: If that’s how the industry works, there could be thousands of authors with stalled century-changing projects. If any of these hypothetical projects were ever realized, she suggests, it will be because their hypothetical creators will have had a chance meeting with a well-financed visionary like, hypothetically, Hans Ulrich Obrist.
But of course, one of those authors is DeWitt and those projects exist in her hard drive and surely a few LARB readers are connected to Obrist. The essay is an elaborate speech act to convey what cannot be said directly: I have art that is too wild and expensive for New Directions, I’m running out of time, someone please give me the resources to make it. From various interviews one can piece together the problem: The projects she dreams of realizing need the help of graphic designers and computer programmers, individuals who need to be paid, but publishers won’t sign a contract until they see an almost fully realized book. Thus the elaborate plea, which, needless to say, our society doesn’t know how to readily parse, not coming from a 61-year-old writer, certainly not a woman. “The Wrong Stuff” sank to the bottom of the internet without a sound, without even inciting some jerk to call out claims which, coming from any other author, would seem outlandish. At least that might have started a conversation.
What makes it all the more depressing is that this plea could so easily have been unnecessary. One can imagine The Last Samurai propelling DeWitt into the same liberating echelon that Infinite Jest or Gödel, Escher and Bach (equally long, unorthodox and surprisingly popular works) propelled David Foster Wallace and Douglas Hofstadter, two famously inflexible writers who found forgiving editors in Michael Pietsch and Bill Kessel (who let Hofstadter do his own type-setting). Even Jonathan Safran Foer got to write Tree of Codes. One can imagine DeWitt getting a MacArthur “genius” grant, rather than setting the world record for torturously coy equivocations on a writer’s intellect (“Helen DeWitt’s great subject is genius … she may just be one herself …” “If we wanted to call Helen DeWitt a genius …” “She is one of those writers who seems to demand the description genius”). One can imagine how differently her rationalism and casual attitude toward suicide marketing would be coded and received if it came from a Peter DeWitt, rather than a Helen.
Or one can simply imagine a world such that when one of our best writers says she has projects that will change literature immured in her hard drive, we do better than plugging our ears, waiting until she’s dead, and giving our descendants the joy of opening her laptop and asking how we let this happen. If DeWitt wants to give our descendants a hint, she can set her login password to a line of Proust: “So it is that a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when anyone speaks to him of a new ‘good book,’ because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read and knows already …”
How to convince you that there are new books, new languages, new speech acts, new ways of living or doing business, new textures upon which to make love? This is the true engineering feat of DeWitt’s writing. Its ambition is not merely refilling spent canisters of frisson. Proust speaks of jaded readers as an analogy for his own jaded attitude toward young girls, renewed by a milkmaid, but the analogy seems flawed—youthful beauty, like a party with guest list or a bull market, sells itself. We’re so susceptible to certain easy charms that economists warn investors against ever thinking “this time is different.” This time, beauty won’t come to bore me. This time, the party will be bacchanalia. This time, the bubble won’t burst.
Yet there are moments when this time really is different. Once in a rare while, some new pleasure or pain or art, one that pales doe-eyed youth or owning real estate, reveals life to be richer and more expansive than you knew it to be. These strange gems are not ones you find where you go panning for novelty. By definition, they exist beyond what you know, so your powers of induction cannot guide you to them. The best you can do, the only thing you can do, is sustain the belief that all of life is yet to be amassed within your composite existence.
This might comfort the patient and the lazy, but it’s also the tragic aspect of DeWitt’s work and life. No matter how ingenious their proposals, how elaborate their speech acts, or how airtight their arguments become, her characters struggle to surmount a latent, animal skepticism. And so does she. I’ve read most of DeWitt’s interviews from the past decade or more. Through them I can track all the subtle refinements to her theory of publishing’s failures and possibilities, all the way to “The Wrong Stuff,” succinct and dazzling. But what are all those refinements worth, and who are they for? In the end, it’s all one plea, endlessly repeated to those who, if they don’t already, probably never will: Believe me.
Recommended Reading: A piece of new fiction by Joanthan Safran Foer! Go check out “Maybe It Was the Distance” over at The New Yorker. Here’s a review of Foer’s Tree of Codes by Kevin Nguyen for The Millions which calls the format of the book, “a wonderful experiment in what a book can be, and also home to a mediocre novel.”
It looks like Jonathan Safran Foer will be publishing his first novel in eleven years next fall. The book, tentatively titled Here I Am, is the story of an American Jewish family, set against a background of traumatic events in the Middle East including earthquakes and an invasion of Israel. Foer’s last novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, enjoyed tremendous critical and commercial success. Here’s a piece on JSF’s crazy, confusing, die-cut book Tree of Codes.
A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I’d been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an “illustrated fiction” into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with “the future of the book.”
In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and ’70s “experimental” literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out – replete with color photography and typographic mayhem – Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I’d just published would never work on it.
Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac’s for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions:
At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses…. [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest…
In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the “provincial” Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for “sellout.” (Not to mention – horrors – a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon – not with Field Guide, anyway. To “sell out,” you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the “beautiful” book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce.
Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are:
Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book
Step 1. Use Color
The iPad and Barnes & Noble’s NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet. As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn’t it cool…in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it’s good enough for a Nobelist, isn’t it good enough for you?
Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate
In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that “photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen” of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy (“glossy”?) magazine readers are apparently “flocking” to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it’s worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we’re seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it’s the literary equivalent of abstract painting’s retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations – as in Joe Meno’s Demons in the Spring – or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams’ Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader.
Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space
eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle’s remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel – difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass’ lead in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there’s white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler’s There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It’s available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don’t think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds “the ‘powerpoint’ chapter…extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.”)
Step 4. Run With Scissors
The opening story of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It’s a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn’t – and couldn’t – exist.
Step 5. Go Aleatory
Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar’s Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau’s “A Story As You Like It.” But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn’t matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover’s “deck of cards” story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates…
Step 6. Put It In A Box
Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, “pile of pages” aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can’t be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney’s, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman’s archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition.
Step 7. Pile on the End Matter
This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren’t palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren’t you likely to hit “The End” and think: I’m done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I’m thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text.
Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books:
1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object.
2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book…though, given the $35 cover price, I can’t imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it.
3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I’ll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov’s and Jonathan Safran Foer’s. There. I’ve done it.
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel’s conclusion rises…and falls.
5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen?
6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a “male version” and a (slightly different) “female version,” bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon!
7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text – which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further – to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can’t blame a guy for trying.
8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan “poetry machine” is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you’d just have to build in a “shuffle” function) – though by equivalence rather than reproduction.
9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I’d bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann’s detractors would argue that’s a good thing. I’m not so sure…
10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children’s librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what’s called a full-bleed)…and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book’s explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen…but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can’t, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad…perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.
Jonathan Franzen has always been outspoken about his disdain of e-readers. In an interview with The AV Club, he said the Kindle “makes everything seem unsubstantial,” that “the words seem more arbitrary, less intrinsically valuable.” Yet Franzen writes the kinds of novels that are best read on the Kindle. They demand attention solely to the text, the kind of undistracted reading environment that makes e-readers so appealing — not to mention the perk of carrying a small electronic device instead of a 700-page hardcover copy of Freedom.
It seems fitting that Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Tree of Codes was published around the same Christmas season when the Kindle became Amazon’s best-selling product ever. The Kindle does away with all manners of a novel’s physical form and design; Tree of Codes exists solely to embrace those things, and to be embraced, but gently.
The die-cut interior of Tree of Codes is made up of select words, carefully re-assembled from Foer’s favorite novel, Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, to create an entirely new narrative. (Cut ten letters from the original title and you get Tree of Codes.) If Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the book equivalent of a mash up, perhaps Tree of Codes is akin to 8-bit music: it’s both a reduction and reinterpretation of another work. Visually, the sparse prose and overwhelming negative space leaves a stunning impression, (accurately captured in what might be the least-annoying book trailer of all time). It’s a wonderful experiment in what a book can be, and also home to a mediocre novel.
What Foer has done is a little gimmicky and not entirely new — William Burroughs and Brion Gyson did a similar cut-up book in the ‘60s — but the reading experience is an absorbing challenge. The first thing you have to do with Tree of Codes is figure out how to read it. I don’t mean interpreting the text — the prose, though occasionally aloof, reads as a fairly straightforward narrative — but how to physically hold the book. Because of Tree’s die-cut pages, it’s hard to tell what words belong on the page you’re looking at and what’s on the next page or two. After a few minutes, I figured out that the best method was to keep a finger under the page I was reading, bending it slightly, to give the words more depth (again, I mean physical depth).
Some readers have taken to inserting a blank sheet of paper behind each page, but doing that feels like a denial of the book’s design. There’s something haunting about seeing what lays ahead, just out of focus. Tree of Codes is intent on distracting its audience and making them conscious of the reading experience. The pages are also fragile, and I found myself holding Tree of Codes with extra care. According to Foer, the binding had to be paperback — if it was hardcover, the book would “collapse in on itself.” It shows consideration to the book not as an art object, but a book as a thing you read.
The format of a book doesn’t need to be challenging or difficult. But if authors really want to defend the idea of the physical book, they need to consider how the medium actually affects the reading experience. The example that comes to mind is Dave Eggers, who writes in QuarkXPress instead of a regular word processor, which might explain why McSweeney’s does just fine without selling books in ePub format.
Despite it’s unconventional form, Tree of Codes is actually a natural step for Foer, as a novelist who has toyed with visual elements like type, white space, and color in his earlier works. In an interview with The Morning News in 2005 (just after the release of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Foer said he “really like[d] books as objects, as little intimate sculptures that you have a real interaction with.”
Sculpture is a medium that is appreciated for its form, texture, its third dimension; sculpture is also a medium that isn’t necessarily interacted with, even touched, unless you want to be escorted to the curb by museum security guards. Really, the sculpture comparison does a disservice to what a book really is: a mass-produced object that you spend hours holding.
It’s just too bad that in the case of Tree of Codes, the reading experience is far more interesting than the actual novel. Holding the book, you can feel an absence of weight in the middle. Even within 3,000 words, Tree of Codes inconsistently waivers from abstract poignance (“The tree stood with the arms upraised and screamed and screamed.”) to the sort of pretentious mediocrity you might find in DeviantArt poetry (“I could feel waves of laid bare, of dreams.”). It boils down to whether or not you find Foer’s lyricism to be poetic or merely sentimental.
But credit is due to Foer for taking Schultz’s work and making it his own. Trees features the familiar fallible perspective from Everything is Illuminated and the Freudian relationships from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. There are also allusions to a vague disaster — is it a plague or the Holocaust? — that amounts to an equally ambiguous tragedy that is better felt than understood.
When I finished Tree of Codes, I placed it in on my bookshelf. But it felt as if it didn’t belong stuffed next to my copy of Freedom — which has endured being borrowed by three different people since August. Tree of Codes might be a much worse novel than Freedom, but it’s a delicate book. There are thousands of copies of Tree of Codes, and yet mine feels special. It’s a reminder that the book is a precious thing.
Did you know that a new Jonathan Safran Foer book is coming out this week? We didn’t until we saw a mention of it at Kottke. More surprising is the form of the book itself. Foer has created a new work called Tree of Codes by cutting out sections of one of his favorite books, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Shulz. The die-cut, Kindle-proof volume is the first major title by London-based Visual Editions. Vanity Fair has more.