Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes was the first book I’ve ever encountered that puzzled me. Not in storyline or character development, but due to the pages themselves. To come across a book with the pages intentionally cut was confusing and surreal. My first thought was, “How on earth do I read this?” In class we discussed how readers are accustomed to a linear story, which is why is was so jarring to see these pages mutilated. Upon reading it, however, I found a story deeper than most I had read before.
Yes, Tree of Codes is riddled with holes, but it adds literal and figurative depth to the story. The story is about the narrator’s father and his struggle to keep a hold on reality. The cut outs on every page stood out to me as a device to illustrate the father’s descent into senility or madness. Broken up and scattered, as the mind tends to become with age. Beyond that, the words on the pages capture the experience as well:
“During this winter, my father would spend hours in corners as if searching for Mother and emerge covered with dust and cobwebs, his eyes froze for long periods. he plunged deeper beyond our understanding and with flushes on his cheeks did not notice us anymore” (Foer 32-33).
I believe this accurately describes how most readers feel on their first attempt on Tree of Codes. Lost, with our eyes frozen to each page, each word. Then, once we understand the narrative, spend so much time in it that we get lost in a different way. It’s radically different from anything I’ve ever read, a new kind of print culture.
Anne Carson’s Nox was another such experience. While the pages in Nox are fully in tact, they are all bound together like post-it notes, and printed on those pages is something of a scrapbook. It looks like you can actually feel the edges of the taped in scraps and the stapled in strips of paper, it’s so three dimensional, but it’s actually flat. This book was a devotion to Carson’s brother, as she quotes on the back cover:
“When my brother died I made an epitaph for him in the form of a book. This is a replica of it, as close as we could get.”
Reading is not an ideal term to describe what you do with this memorial. You study it, observe it, and experience it. Many pages have lexical definitions of Grecian words, many of which deal with pain and suffering to compare how her family felt about the loss of her brother Michael.
What we learn about Michael from the fragments she includes is that he was gone for most of his life. He traveled a lot and fell in love with a girl named Anna, who died young. He never stopped loving her, even when he was married. His widow knew about Anna and had pictures of the girl that her husband had taken years before.
We get an extremely fragmented view of Carson’s relationship with her brother, which is metaphorical for the distant relationship they maintained. The same can be said of his relationship with their mother. Carson mentioned that Michael phoned her maybe 5 times in 22 years, and his mother even less. Carson writes, “It was a relief not to have him dropping through every conversation like a smell of burning hair, to be honest, from my point of view” (4.3).
Sometimes childlike drawings are pasted on the pages, and pictures that have been cut into thin frames. The entire book is broken up like this. I felt strange at times going through it, like I was reading a diary. The emotions are raw and that rawness sometimes comes out in the drawings, the creations on the pages.
Nox is a completely unique work of art. It differs from Tree of Codes in that is isn’t a narrative composed of cutting words out of someone else’s story. It is the true account of her family and their emotions in dealing with a loss. Both Foer and Carson have created a new form of print culture and literature. I look forward to experiencing more books like these.