Jonathan Safran Foer has had a trajectory in the publishing world that is close to ideal. In 2002, at the age of 25, he published _Everything is Illuminated_, a novel that developed out of his senior thesis at Princeton where he was a philosophy major. The book was a major critical success at the time. The _Times of London_ hailed the novel as “a work of genius” and said, “After it, things will never be the same.” Retrospective reviews have been less positive, calling the book pretentious, among other things. Foer followed it up with _Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close_, a novel about a remarkably precocious little boy who discovers a key left for him by his father, who died on September 11. Foer played with the visual in the novel, experimenting with typesetting, blank pages, and images to create what he believed to be a more dynamic reading experience. The same year _Extremely Loud_ was published, _Everything is Illuminated_ was made into a film, and his stardom was cemented.
It’s been five years since Foer has produced a novel. In that time he has published a book on vegetarianism and sprinkled short stories here and there in _The New Yorker_. Now he has a new work out, a work of fiction, though I’d hesitate to simply call it a novel. It’s called _Tree of Codes_, and it is almost more of a sculpture than a novel.
_Tree of Codes_ is unlike anything you have seen before in a bookstore. It is delicately made with heavy paper—apparently Foer had to go through several publishers until he found one who would print it the way he wanted. Each page consists of words cut out and moved around; that is, there are actual, physical holes in the pages, and you can see through the page to the next, so the words seem to blend together. One could think of each page as a sort of white washed wall, with windows to show words hovering on the other side.
The book was birthed by the work of two others. The form comes from _A Humument_ by Tom Phillips, a work Foer calls a “masterpiece.” This is nothing compared to the sort of praise he has for the other influence on _Tree of Codes_, the Polish writer Bruno Schulz. _Tree of Codes_ is quite literally made of Schulz’s words. Foer took Schulz’s novel _The Street of Crocodiles_, and physically cut out words from the text to make a new story.
No words are rearranged, though some are removed. The result is a spare, skeletal story that feels almost elemental, as though one could not get any more succinct than this story. The book has a body, remembers it does, and with so much of its flesh cut away, now barely hangs together.
It is a strange idea, especially when hearing Foer explain and defend it. On Schulz, Foer said to _The New York Times_, “His writing is so unbelievably good, so much better than anything that could conceivably be done with it, that my first instinct was always to leave it alone.” One wonders, then, why he did not just leave it alone. Why not place a long block quote from a work he admires at the beginning of one of his novels, to say “this writer inspired me, and you too should read him”? It is, at the very least, an unorthodox approach to reverence and appreciation to cut up the work of the writer one admires. It seems almost blasphemous, at some level. _Tree of Codes_ is a beautiful object, and the writing is unusual and evocative, but it seems inorganic, forced, as though its author was so astonished by the strength of Schulz’s work that he could only lash out at it, cut it to pieces, to feel like there was room in the realm of literature for him to work.
Foer sees the project as something akin to taking a stone and carving it up. He says one has not really added anything to the stone, or taken anything away, simply used it as a starting point to create something new. He sees _Tree of Codes_ as a Joseph Cornell-like attempt at constructing a narrative. Where Cornell placed objects carefully in a box to create a sort of instantaneous visual poem, Foer sees the form of _Tree of Codes_ as a similar exercise with words. Bruno Schulz’s writing is the box, and Foer’s work has added to it, changed it, made it new.
Ultimately though, I can’t help but feel like I am holding some sort of wounded creature when I page through _Tree of Codes_. Because the book is paperback due to difficult binding practices, and because so much text has been removed from each page, the thing seems positively hollow, as though much of the flesh and bone have been removed, leaving perhaps just a sliver of a heart and some semblance of soul. If one were to read it ignoring the form (which is impossible), the story could be new and unusual and good. But I can’t help but feel that Foer’s ambitious design and idea has ultimately hindered the impact of the final project. Foer may not see himself as strictly a writer—he has repeatedly struck down the idea of definitions and job descriptions saying they merely constrain him—but _Tree of Codes_ is not a novel and it is not a sculpture. It is a book written by two people who had different ideas about the way the words should go together. Foer got there second, with a pen knife. His is the story we end up reading, but we can feel Schulz still breathing, however faintly. Perhaps Foer’s greatest success is reminding us that books have a body, and even a life. He had to carve one up to show us.