Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Destructive construction

Jonathan Safran Foer's latest book "Tree of Codes" is truly a piece of art. The author took Bruno Schulz's "The Street of Crocodiles," his favorite book, and started to take out words from the text and constructed a compelling new story with the remaining words. The act of writing thus became an exercise to construct through destruction, to create through erasure. The result is as much a sculpture as a work of fiction, a book of cutout pages on which holes indicate traces of the missing words. You then mentally piece together the fragmented phrases and sentences into a coherent narrative.

In a way, this delicate object revives the intimate relationship between the reader and the book - as Olafur Eliasson (who has also cut a book) puts it, "an extraordinary journey that activates the layers of time and space involved in the handling of the book and its heap of words." It is a book that "remembers it actually has a body." Apparently, this emphasis on physicality is a slap in the face of digital books. (Did I just say that on the day when Google launched their ebook store?) The experience of reading involves the texture of paper, the smell of ink, holding the page with your hand and physically turning it. "The Tree of Codes" reclaims the art of the book.

JSF skillfully turned a collection of short stories into one single haunting novel. But does it count as his work if he's literally just using Bruno Schulz's words? In an interview, he said, "There’s the sense that every book ever written is like this, if you use the dictionary as a starting point. This is a more limited palette, but it’s the same idea." This reminds me of a scene in the movie Flash of Genius. It's based on the story of Robert Kearns, professor and part-time inventor, who originally came up with the design for the intermittent windshield wiper and battled to the victory of the classic patent infringement cases against Ford and Chrysler. When Ford’s lawyers claimed that Kearns only used basic electronic components and did not really invent anything new, Kearns used the book “A Tale of Two Cities” to argue that Dickens did not invent any new words yet he did create a unique masterpiece by arranging words into a new pattern. I guess it's the same when musicians compose notes, painters draw lines, and architects punch a window. In the act of creating, we don't really start from scratch every time. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

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