- Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes:Memorial, Fetish, Bookishness
"On the brink of the end of paper, I was attracted to the idea of a book that can't forget it has a body."1 This is how jonathan safran foer describes his motivation for Tree of Codes (2010), a work of experimental literature that revels in what I call "bookishness." I use the term "bookishness" to describe an aesthetic practice and cultural phenomenon that figures the book as artifact rather than as just a medium for information transmission and, in so doing, presents the book as a fetish for our digital age. Bookishness proliferates in twenty-first-century culture, presenting numerous and varied sites through which to calibrate and consider medial change as well as to critique digital culture, especially end-time narratives about the death of the book. Tree of Codes is one such site: an example of literary bookishness that is both a memorial and a fetish.
Tree of Codes is full of holes, literally. Rectangular gaps of various sizes puncture its pages, leaving behind a latticework of paper upon which words or strings of words form little islands around the gaping holes. The reader circumnavigates these holes in order to tease out meaning from the fragmented narrative they comprise. To produce this visual, physical text, Foer employed a [End Page 97] digitally enhanced process of die-cutting to carve into a book by Polish-Jewish author Bruno Schulz: The Street of Crocodiles (1934).2 Schulz was murdered by the Nazis, and his writing was largely lost to history.3 The sense of loss—the loss of people, books, and cultural memory—permeates Tree of Codes figuratively and formally, most notably in the gaping holes in its carved-out pages. Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles is a poetic and surreal collection of short stories about a family in a small European town experiencing changes due to increased urbanization and modernization.4 The feeling of a changing world encroaching on an intimate, local place permeates Schulz's writing and carries over to Foer's adaptation, rendering Tree of Codes an allegory for a contemporary moment of cultural and medial transformation.5
The holes on the pages of Tree of Codes signify loss and prompt remembrance. The pages containing these holes are memorials. I use the term "memorial" as opposed to "monument" because, as Melissa Sodeman explains, "memorial stands for a mode of commemoration that admits the inevitability of forgetting and that seeks to preserve not what has been lost, but rather its remembered image."6 The relationship between Tree of Codes and The Street of Crocodiles is not one of veracity and archiving but of representing and remixing "its remembered image" or after-effect. What is remembered here is multiple: Schulz's texts, the People of the Book lost in the Shoah, the artifactuality of the codex in a culture of digitization, and concerns about the fate of the book in the digital age. Schulz's stories are devoted to the artifactual; the text renders objects and places as deeply material, indeed, as agents (in a Latourian sense) that impact and affect human characters.7 This focus on the material in Schulz's source text provides a foundation for Foer's own making of literature as bookish memorial.8 In the early years of the twenty-first century, in the face of tremendous changes to our relationships and "attachments" (as Rita Felski might say)9 to books, Tree of Codes repurposes an important older text in ways that focus attention not only on the particular content of that text (the data that has been lost or saved) but also on the media supporting this engagement. Kiene Brillenburg Wurth describes Tree of Codes as "the trace, the history of a reading."10 Understood this way, Foer's writing-as-cutting produces a memorial to Foer's reading of Schulz's text. I extend this point to show how Tree of Codes uses the format of the codex to serve as a monument, memorial, and fetish object for the book medium in an age when it is supposedly under [End Page 98] threat due...