In a column for Sina Queyras’ Lemon Hound blog I discussed poets and novelists who used previously published texts as palimpsests for new writing. These books—as exemplified by Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow, Jen Bervin’s Nets, Elizabeth Tonnard’s Let us go then, you and I and Janet Holmes’ The ms of m y kin—treat other writers’ texts as the raw material for their own work. Each of those books—and the key texts in this genre, Tom Phillip’s A Humument and Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os—look to “compose the holes” and create a new text from the already present. They suggest that embedded within any text is a myriad of latent texts.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes (London: Visual Editions, 2010) is the latest entry in this sub-genre and has become an Internet sensation. Foer has executed the logical extension of these projects by literally excising unwanted from his source text leaving each page a lattice-work. The book is visually stunning—when I’ve shown my copy to friends it has elicited gasps of surprise (first by its incongruous lack of weight considering its page count, then by the pages themselves)—and the production values are exceptional.

The publisher, London’s Visual Editions, has released only one other title, a beautiful new edition of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and has seemingly spared no expense in the preparation of Tree of Codes.

As radical as Tree of Codes may look on the surface, it belies a traditional sensibility which undermines the project as a whole. Foer has chosen as his source text Bruno Schultz’s short story collection Street of Crocodiles, his “favorite book.” This selection reflects not upon a latent text within Street of Crocodiles, nor upon a potential commentary upon Schultz’s biography or bibliography, but rather simply upon Foer’s own personal aesthetic. Tree of Codes is, then, Foer’s love letter to Schultz’s oeuvre. An excision text like Tree of Codes is based entirely on the quality of the writer’s choices: her ability to choose an initial text and style of writing / creation which is both uncanny and self-contained. In the best examples in this genre the resultant text is dictated by, and comments upon, the source text. There should be some awareness, some commentary, some self-reflection, on the process of moving the source text into the recombinant resultant text. Tree of Codes, sadly, is not an example of (as Craig Dworkin defines Conceptual writing) “a writing in which the idea cannot be separated from the writing itself: in which the instance of writing is inextricably intertwined with the idea of Writing: the material practice of écriture.” Foer has merely mined one straight-forward narrative for yet another straight-forward narrative.

The litmus test for writing is, as Craig Dworkin argues, “no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.” Tree of Codes has claimed this form of excision writing as squarely its own and prevents other writers from undertaking a project with similar execution; sadly it does so without engaging with the content as solidly as it has the form of the novel. The entirety of the first page of text in Tree of Codes reads “The passerby / 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” [8] and while the excisions and textual absences does create a sense of foreboding and melancholy, they do not meaningfully add to the story itself. Tree of Codes is not explicitly tied to its means of creation; there is no reason that the book was composed in this manner instead of a more traditional means of composition.

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