The Short Version: …I actually honestly couldn’t tell you. There’s a mother driving her husband insane, a son watching all of it, and a world that seems to be disintegrating in some sort of absurdist fashion. All beautifully written though – and die-cut.
Review: I don’t know how I feel about Jonathan Safran Foer. I know I definitely don’t buy into the wunderkind thing anymore – but I also don’t dislike him. He’s a bit pretentious… but so am I, so I can’t fault him for that. When I heard that his new book would be coming out only in England first and that it would be a limited printing, I was confused… and curious. Looking into it, I discovered this company called Visual Editions and their unique (and wonderful) take on books.
The idea of The Book as Art is something I’ve always put forward – you probably know that if you’re a loyal reader. I go for the editions that are more visually attractive. I enjoy books that are more engrossing, even if just through their cover art, than your average paperback. So Tree of Codes sounded interesting: a die-cut book, exhumed from the text of another book. This has been a big thing recently with those newspaper poems, where someone blacks out most of the text from an article to create a short poem. I feel like I did something like this in 9th grade, as well.
What struck me most about this book is that, tonally, it is very different from JSF’s other work. There is a sense of the gothic here, of the supernatural, the absurd. Actually, this book reminded me most of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. That strange absurd reality that seems like ours but also is most clearly not. Like a dream world or a world sculpted out of someone’s mind. JSF mentions houses sinking into the earth, a city being unmapped, the Father of the story becoming mentally destabilized, and a comet that may or may not end the world. It’s all very hazy and misty and mysterious.
As a result, I can’t really come down on a firm feeling about the book. I enjoyed it, yes – it was an interesting and creative and simply different reading experience. The book feels so fragile – you can feel how hollow it is when you pick it up, even though (from the outside) it looks like a typical and not-insubstantial novel. But it also feels weightless in terms of content. There isn’t a whole lot there. Most of it reads like strange fragments of poetry – as though he selected his favorite phrases and tried to string them into a sort-of story. Because, honestly, there isn’t much story here. The father being mentally ill, the mother driving him there, the narrator watching all of this… but that’s it. There’s so much more said that doesn’t really have an impact in any way, shape, or form. As a result, the book feels fleeting.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I did enjoy this book. The gothic, vaguely creepy atmosphere of reading a hollowed-out novel, especially one that seems to focus on such hazy and even spooky moments… it was enjoyable. There are beautiful moments and phrases here, as one should expect from Jonathan Safran Foer. But reading this book is a fleeting literary experience, made memorable only by the unusual circumstances of the die-cut skeleton of a different novel. I feel like this idea – of taking a novel and making an entirely different story out of it – has quite interesting potential… but future ‘authors’ need to see this as a warning: you can’t get too ethereal or the book will seem like simply a novelty item instead of a true story to be told.