Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer

Tree of Codes BY Jonathan Safran Foer. Visual Editions. Paperback, 285 pages. $40.
The cover of Tree of Codes

“Erase often, if you hope to write something worth rereading,” quoth Horace. Modern authors, perhaps under the influence of the Duchampian concept of the readymade, have been using their erasers in ways the old Roman could never have imagined. Subtractive composition has become a genre of its own in recent decades, its early major examples (in English at least) being the British artist Tom Phillips’s A Humument, derived from an otherwise forgotten late Victorian novel called A Human Document—the first of several versions of Phillips’s book was published in 1970—and the American poet Ronald Johnson’s poem Radi Os, distilled from Paradise Lost and published in 1977. These two books establish two of the genre’s constitutive polarities. One polarity is erasure through superimposition (in A Humument, words are obscured by abstract visual elements) vs. erasure through removal (becoming an important visual element in itself, the white space of the page substitutes for most of Milton’s text in Radi Os). The other polarity is between using a little-known source text with few prior associations for most readers vs. using a canonical one on which the new work will always be seen as commentary, homage, or critique. Curiously, the polarity that is to some extent silenced by such works is that between novel and poem; if Ezra Pound’s slogan “dichten = condensare” holds any truth, the act of pruning back the language of the most prosaic text will always tend to turn it into something more like poetry.

Maybe that’s why it’s mildly surprising that the latest venture into erasographia is not by a poet or even by a conceptual artist but by a novelist, albeit one who has in the past attempted to integrate a visual poetics within a nonetheless predominantly realistic (or magical-realist) narrative set-up. If Jonathan Safran Foer is closer to Johnson than to Phillips in taking a well-known book as his source—Tree of Codes is based on The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, not exactly as hallowed a name as that of Milton admittedly though equally a visionary of sorts and a writer whose cult includes such worthies as Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, and David Grossman—he can congratulate himself on some originality in his method of subtraction, borrowed from neither precursor. He’s neither adorned the page with nontextual additions nor purified it with extra white space but rather edited Schulz by cutting into his (translated) pages. This means that unlike Phillips or Johnson he is not bound to compose only with words that started out on the same page together, but can use the “windows” in them to look through from one page to another. In effect, this allows Safran Foer to derive two different books from Schulz’s one: You can either read the pages one at a time, for instance by slipping a sheet of paper behind each one as you read it to block out the rest, in which case something like a sweetly lyrical tincture of Schulz’s fanciful narrative results; this version begins, “The passersby had their eyes half-closed. Everyone wore his mask. children greeted each other with masks painted on their faces; they smiled at each other’s smiles.” The other version actually opens a page earlier—a page with no words but only rectangular apertures, through which one reads, or perhaps it would be better to say sees, bits and pieces of no less than eight successive pages adding up to a cacophony of phrases, words, and bits of words that includes passages like, “over a keyboard less day. the ormous n of gr paving stones had their eyes half-closed. Everyone clumsy gestu. whole generations wore his fallen asleep”—naturally I have not tried to represent the spacing of either of the passages I’ve quoted. The first version might be called a Cubist transmutation of Schulz’s text; the second, its Dada demolition. One is sibylline, the other rebarbative. One will seduce you into effortfully (but not necessarily slowly) reading it word by word while the other will tempt you to dip in and out of the book randomly.

Finally, the two overlapping readings of Tree of Codes come together on its last page, where there’s nothing to see through the paper windows but more blank paper without words. Spoiler alert! The book is left whispering to itself about itself. “Left to itself, it withered away amid indifference. richer by one more disappointment, life returned to its normal course. my father alone was awake”—that’s Bruno Schulz, metaphysically alive through his echoing text even now, six decades after his murder by a Gestapo officer right?——“wandering silently through the rooms.” There may be nothing that new about the idea of subtractive writing, yet Safran Foer has succeeded in doing something new with it by distancing The Street of Crocodiles and then distancing it again; Tree of Codes is doubly haunted, by its original and by its own chaotic and impenetrable doppelgänger.

Barry Schwabsky is an American art critic and poet living in London. His books include The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art (Cambridge University Press), Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting (Phaidon Press), Opera: Poems 1981-2002 (Meritage Press), and Book Left Open in the Rain (The Brooklyn Rail/Black Square Editions). He writes regularly for Artforum and The Nation, among others.