Creating Something Out of Something

Speaking of mixed reviews, which I was last week when I posted about Steven Pinker’s new book, I’ve been meaning to post about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes for a while now.  Everything I have read by Foer has immediately found a place on my favorite list, so when I heard he had a new book coming out, I put it on hold at the library right away.  I didn’t know much about it except that he was doing something “unusual” with it, which was to be expected.

Tree of Codes is easily the most unusual of his books.  The concept here is that Foer has taken one of his favorite books, Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, and created a whole new story from within it.  As you might imagine, some people find this to be a brilliant way of showing rather than telling that the story is layered and there is much that we (readers & the characters in the book) don’t know.  Other people find it annoying and pretentious.  Here is a video about the concept:


It isn’t a completely new idea, though.  A couple of years ago, I ran across Nets by Jen Bervin in which Shakespeare’s sonnets are put through much the same process at Schulz’ novel to produce new poems.  I actually think it’s an interesting way to re-imagine the work.  Read an excerpt of Nets in Conjunctions to see what I mean.

I think that it works better as poetry than it does as a novel.  For me, the “erasure” format put a distance between myself (the reader) and the story.  It was hard to keep plot and characters straight, and I found myself wanting to wander through the book the way I would wander through a poem. The holes and spaces spoke as much as the words that were left, and I focused on the emotion and the language while the details of the story faded to the background.

That may read like a bad review, but it isn’t.  What was left was beautiful & interesting, and it makes me endlessly curious about the work from which it came.

I must confess, I was fascinated by this work.  Of course, Foer is a favorite of mine (as mentioned in this post), and I have also been long quasi-interested in cut-up poetry.  Perhaps I was predisposed to some sort of affection for this book.  Certainly that hasn’t been true for everyone.