December 3, 2023

Book Review: Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer

Author: Jonathan Safran Foer

Title: Tree of Codes

Publisher: Visual Editions

Place of Publication: Belgium and Netherlands

Date of Publication: 2010

Number of Pages: 134 pages (140 pages including the Author’s Afterword)

Price: £17.50 – £25.00




Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes is an innovative post-modern response to Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. Foer’s use of erasure, through the process of die-cutting, effectively produces a separate and completely independent story within Schulz’s work.

To understand Tree of Codes it is first necessary to place it within the context of Schulz’s writing. The majority of Schulz’s literary works were destroyed in the World War 2. Foer considers The Street of Crocodiles a surviving artefact reaching into the infinite, casting the shadows of all that was lost. The primary motivation behind Foer’s book was to use erasure as ‘continuation of its (The Streets of Crocodile) creation’; producing life out of the void.

The reader is introduced to this very idea as the nameless narrator attempts to ascertain meaning from the confusion of the surrounding world. This is mirrored through the physical aesthetics of the book. The presentation, exposing voids within the text and suggesting, upon the periphery of each cut page, another word or sentence from another page, depicts the narrator’s perception of life: a scattering of fragments of time and place. Although the madness of presentation may seem initially overwhelming and impenetrable, Foer’s mastery of erasure cuts through the conventions of linear story-telling, providing the reader with a seemingly unlimited freedom of interpretation.

Adopting an experimental approach – reading everything as it appears, including words that reveal themselves beneath on other pages – may begin a journey of elimination, gradually filtering the story down with each turn of the page. This replicates the book’s inherent theme of life as a process of erasure: ‘reducing life is not a sin. It is sometimes necessary’ (p. 49).This is an interesting way of both textually and physically evoking the breakdown of the confusion of life in order to gain closure. This approach may not be as comprehensible as conventional reading, yet signifies the disjointed, multitude of life occurring all at once; giving the text a sense of timelessness.

A conventional reading interprets the use of erasure as birthing beautiful poetics from Schulz’s writing. Linear reading may require an increased concentration compared to other books, yet the reader will find satisfaction in the intense meanings that hang from every word and lyrical elegance flowing throughout the story.

Tree of Codes is a short read, yet at no point does it seem like this text lacks content. Foer’s efficient writing style achieves the most from what is used, exploring huge philosophical ideas in a little space of text. Foer only uses what is necessary. Regardless of the overwhelming presentation, the story is extremely emotive, lyrically sound and produces stunning imagery. Foer challenges the conventions of literature to evoke scepticism to which the reader can apply to their own life. This book symbolises the infinity that can be found within literature and life. In turn, its focus upon what is absent within Foer’s work makes it an artefact of his own talent as a writer.

Matthew Tenwick

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