The Enigma Code

Posted on January 14, 2011

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Best known for Everything Is Illuminated and  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, author Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest release is as much a sculptural work of art as it is a work of literary fiction, writes Melanie Sheridan.

Non-verbal communication expert Marc Salem once gave me a trick to beat writers’ block: open a book, any book, to a random page and, without looking, point at a word. That word is now the first word of your article/story/whatever. The idea being that the imposed limitation imposed will jolt your creativity.

It’s a technique Brooklyn-based writer Jonathan Safran Foer could have used in the creation of his latest book, Tree Of Codes. I use the word ‘creation’ instead of ‘writing’ deliberately. Tree Of Codes is, to use the publisher’s words, “as much a sculptural object as it is a work of masterful storytelling”.

Open the book, skip past the title and dedication pages, and you’re greeted by an initially baffling display: a blank page full of holes. Actual physical, cut-out-with-a-knife-or-pair-of-scissors holes. The next page is the same, save for a few words spared by the knife. And so on for the next 128 pages. It’s as if someone didn’t want you to see something, so they chopped it out.

Although, in this case, it’s more that someone – Safran Foer – wants you to see something else, a new story, within the words of an existing story. “To make Tree Of Codes,” the author explains on a youtube video posted by the book’s publisher, Visual Editions, “I printed out numerous manuscripts of [Polish Jewish author] Bruno Schultz’s Street Of Crocodiles and tried to find a story within his stories. The goal was always to carve away a great number of the words in order to have, with the remaining words, a different story.”

This was the American author’s way of expressing his love for Schulz’s original and is, perhaps, not so surprising to those who’ve read his last novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in which Safran Foer first experimented with visual writing, using photos, drawings, typesetting, spaces and blank pages.

Of course, this presents readers with an initial dilemma. How do they read it? “The experience of reading the book probably changes as you move through it,” Safran Foer notes in the video. “I know a lot of people, when they open the front cover, not knowing what to expect, are quite surprised.”

“When you first look at the book, it appears to be very chaotic, confusing even. But when you start to lift each page, you realise just how easy the story is to read.”

Indeed. Anna Gerber, publisher at Visual Editions, acknowledges that “when you first look at the book, it appears to be very chaotic, confusing even. But when you start to lift each page, disentangle one page from the one underneath it, you start to realise just how easy the story is to read. Some people have told us that they’ve placed a blank white sheet underneath the page. It raises all sorts of interesting questions about how we read and how easy or difficult it is to read a book differently,” she adds. “That’s our hope, anyway.”

Once you get the hang of it, you can read the book in about half an hour or forty minutes, as its total word count is less than 3,000. The story takes place over the last day of a man’s life, and unfolds in poetic delicacy, both in the literary sense and in a more physical sense. It’s as if the gaps in the man’s perceptions mirror the gaps in the reader’s experience (through the physical gaps in the book’s pages), and in this Safran Foer’s cleverness shines. By forcing the reader to experience the same confusion as the narrator, he has turned what might have been a self-indulgent exercise in a less skilled writer’s hands into a mesmerising and immersive work of fiction.

And of visual art. There’s a video on youtube of people’s reactions upon opening Tree Of Codes for the first time. It underscore’s Safran Foer’s statement that his book is certainly not one “that looks like any other book in a bookstore”. And which was not created like any other book in a bookstore. The process by which each page was made is called die cutting. It’s a technique Safran Foer had “long been interested in, because it seems the kind of perfect interface or perfect intersection of the visual arts and literature.”
All up, says Anna Gerber, it took nearly two years from first talking with Safran Foer to the book’s publication. And it took nearly a year of prototyping and testing. On Visual Editions’ website (visual-editions.com) there’s a photo of a handful of people around a table, all hand-cutting pages. They are students from the London College of Communication, Gerber explains. “They were helping the book’s designer, Sara de Bondt, to make a dummy by hand as part of the design testing process.”

Having come up with a workable design, a printer willing to actually mass-produce the book had to be found. Not surprisingly, most of those approached turned it down. Eventually, Belgian printers Die Keure took the punt. As to why Visual Editions themselves took the punt, it’s in their name. The fledgling London-based publisher was formed by Gerber and Britt Iversen out of a belief that books should be as visually interesting as the stories they tell.

“Our starting point is to only publish books that have what we call ‘visual writing’ and Jonathan is one of the best contemporary examples of this kind of writing,” says Gerber. “So we wrote him a sort of love letter to see what he thought. And here we are with Tree of Codes nearly two years later.”

Tree Of Codes is published by Visual Editions, and is available from select bookshops, RRP $56.

To view a PDF of the published story click here.

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Posted in: Books