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.
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So, I just landed about three hours ago, and it's good to be back. Travelling is great fun, but it wears you out too. I am looking forward to my own bed and getting rid of my suitcase for a while, plus, I was running out of books. I read a bunch while I was in Ireland, but I didn't get a chance to post here. (Sorry). Surprisingly, the internet cafes in Ireland all had fast connections and good computers, but I was never able to sit at one for than fifteen minutes. There was too much to see and do. So.... where was I? Before I left Barcelona I read The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez, which took only about a day. First and formost, the book suffers from a poor translation by a gentleman named Ed Emery. The text is littered with annoying British drivel like "he wondered what colour knickers she wore" and "I'm also very fond of this girl with a squint." To be more precise, it wasn't just a regular BBC British but more of an in your face Guy Ritchie movie British. I had to make an effort to keep the British accent from creeping into my head while I was reading, which was annoying because I was trying to relish the experience of reading this little novel set in the sweaty apartments of Barcelona while I was sitting in a sweaty apartment in Barcelona. The whiny British voice in my head just didn't fit the scene. To be fair, Serpent's Tail, the publisher, is a British press so I guess they're just serving their audience. The book itself is very brief and somewhat derivative in a John Fante or Charles Bukowski sort of way in both style and theme. There are especially parallels to Fante's Ask the Dust. Nunez's hero, Antonio aka Frankie, shares with Fante's Arturo Bandini a rooming house lifestyle, girl troubles, and a drinking problem. Bandini, though, is a noble character. He is struggling to be a writer, and he wants to find love. Frankie is just down on his luck, and this little book merely recounts a bizarre episode in his life. With spare prose, Fante manages to go deep into the psyche of his character. Nunez substitutes shock value for depth of character with predictable results. For a book that can be read in an afternoon, though, I'd say it's worth a look, if only because it is entertaining in an enjoyable voyueristic sort of way. More later....
The last few weeks have been all about rediscovered works by beloved authors, first Harper Lee's upcoming sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, then Dr. Seuss's What Pet Should I Get? Now Arthur Conan Doyle joins the trend with a rediscovered Sherlock Holmes short story, available online from Vulture.
Another posthumously published Roberto Bolaño novel has arrived, The Third Reich. Time to update our Bolaño Syllabus again? Also posthumously published is Michael Crichton's Micro, which was a third finished when he died and was completed using Crichton's notes by Richard Preston. Also new this week is Stephen Sondheim's Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011).
"If only we could talk! Like the evening before last, I had actually just stayed the night at the house where I’d been drinking, purely and simply because they didn’t want me to drive back drunk. But I couldn’t tell you that, because telling you would have suggested that you minded; and that’s the kind of minding we never talk of. We only either kid each other about it, or get angry." The love letters of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy (one of the first openly gay relationships in Hollywood) are delicate and beautiful.
“People used to wish that life could be as it is in books—that it could have the beauty, drama, and shapeliness that writers gave it. Today, by contrast, we hope desperately that life is not really like our writers portray it; in other words, we hope that writers are not representative men and women, but unfit beings whose perceptions are filtered through their unhealth. It is necessary to hope this, because if life were as it appears in our literature it would be unlivable.” Adam Kirsch explores the downside of literary nostalgia.