Saturday, 6 November 2010

Eating Trees / Reading Leaves

- dawn...vagina...scotchtape - jonathan safran foer - from nyulocal -

You might have already seen some shots of Jonathan Safran Foer's new book Tree of Codes. Here's one if you haven't yet:

Apparently Visual Editions came to Foer with an offer -  “we can’t pay you, but on the other hand we’ll make any sort of book you can imagine” (from here) - and this was what he came up with, a near impossible to mass produce cut-up of Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles. Every page is uniquely die-cut to make a new (and, we're assured, cogent) work out of Schulz's original.

There are more pictures over at the Visual Editions site, and there's even a reaction video which surely makes the art-books-as-weird-porn-for-bibliophiles link as explicit as it's ever going to be...

The book comes out on the 15th of November, so there's been no chance to read it, but I wanted to write something about its striking form before the content was made available (such separations are impossible, of course, but this is the closest we can get to such a vacuum). A great post over at The Experts Agree talks about how Tree of Codes' form physically mimics the erasures of Tom Phillips' A Humument (itself a doctored copy of W.H. Mallock's A Human Document), and about Oulipo-like restrictions on creation and Burroughs-like cut-ups which lets us start to go a little further into what the physicality of a book we haven't read might mean, in itself and to the 'death of books' argument in which it will inevitably sit.

Reporting on an interview with Foer, The Experts Agree post also alluded to the seamy contemporary weight of cutting into documents - redaction. A Humument never felt like a redaction to me, just a creative use, an ever adding, not removing of value. Maybe it's the way the paint and the ink and the paper and the glue exists on Phillips' pages, sometimes only partially obscuring the text that's no longer 'meant' to be there, allowing the palimpsest to emerge, for the two texts to mingle. In Foer's work, of course, this can never happen, Schulz's text is obliterated, and that pang of regret (that I have no doubt will be experienced as an eerie “is this...ok?” by some readers), that a book has been somehow destroyed to make this one, becomes significant, now, in a way it might not have in a time less sensitive to leaked dossiers, expenses scandals, or whistle-blowing sites' attempts at selective (and protective) censorship. Plain white pages with sections missing, things lost through effort, black ink replaced with space, with depth, undoubtedly feels politically resonant today. How such an interpretation will sit alongside the story remains to be seen, but such a meaning can never be entirely emptied from Foer's book, the treatment of documents (in both senses) is too embedded in the media landscape. The sanctity of intact books is surely tied to a belief in their wholeness as a form of truth; that pang of regret at a desecration becomes tied, in Tree of Codes' form, to our belief that redacted documents aren't an 'interpretation' or a 'version' or an 'artwork,' they're a species of lie.

(A note in relation to content: Foer's spoken about the infamous break up (the cut-up) of a Schulz painting, a mural painted for the Gestapo officer who protected him, for a time, during World War II (story here). A displaced and defaced legacy has become a part of Schulz's memory, and any book which seeks to exclude and re-appropriate his voice to its own ends (however noble) must be tied to such events. It's impossible to comment on Foer's treatment of such without exploring Tree of Codes, of course, but it seems too indelible a part of the politics of the form not to mention).

How else might we start to think about the shape of the book? A palimpsest forms there too, but not between Foer and Schulz; it becomes an oscillating, iterating palimpsest of itself. From the first page you can see elements of the text to come between the bars/barricades/supports of the cut out page that you're on, and every page-turn will change that view. You might read a word or two from ten pages on, and then see it in five different contexts as you move through the story. You might not be 'meant' to read them yet, but they will inflect, and be inflected by their surroundings over and over until suddenly you'll be upon words you've been reading in various ways for ten minutes, revealed now in their 'true' context. Whether this saturates or empties them of meaning in the context of the story itself will surely come down to luck, and the willingness of the reader, but I suspect that the sheer performativity of the text, the making of a material metaphor for the way that words are just letters (which are just proxies for fragments of sounds), which depend and alter and turn on context, will be an effective device, allowing all sorts of readers to produce more meanings than they might expect from such a device (/hunch).

Tree of Codes will also undoubtedly be expected to join the bibliophiles' rank of works, such as A Humument, House of Leaves and Only Revolutions, Tristram Shandy, The Unfortunates, and thousands of small run artists' books, as another example of the misrepresentation of the death of the book, of something which could never be done, could never mean as much, on a screen. It must. (In fact, with A Humument receiving an iPad edition, it's surely got more work to do than ever...) When most people mourn the death of the book they rarely seem to be saying that these forms will go away (mostly, I suspect, because it would be a stupid argument, and easily countered - they'll be the last to go as artists two hundred years hence will still be searching for the last of the commercial printers, or building their own presses to make something “like they used to” in order to see what that might mean). Instead they speak out for books in general, for the average paperback not finding its way into the hands of some hypothetical reader. It seems far better, however, to admire what the shape of Foer's book might say about the act of reading, about reading as producing, about reading as skimming and skipping, about writing as using the work of others, about writing as occluding the work of others, about censorship as creation, about censorship as the opposite of silencing (as it drives people to the original, the unexpurgated, in their droves), than to mourn a million Dan Browns ending up pulped and re-pulped to make a Kindle box. I'm genuinely excited for Tree of Codes because it demonstrates the futility of saying that books are dead or dying. Books are just what someone chooses to do between two covers, and Foer looks like he's chosen to do something (at least materially) wonderful. We don't need books which just give us words we could happily absorb from anywhere, we need books which have to be books. Books which couldn't be anything else remind us what we love about the form, and they help us make choices based on our own peccadilloes - if you love reading and Tree of Codes doesn't seem interesting then maybe it's the case that words interest you more than books (and it would be a strange demographic indeed if every voracious reader was a bibliophile).  We need works which push at the boundaries of their form to help us with these sorts of questions, to remind us what we're fighting for, and to stop us fighting if there isn't a good reason.  At first glance the complexity of Tree of Codes looks like something people thought was well worth fighting for.

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