A New Reading Experience
Readers today have grown used to, and are comfortable with, a certain kind of narrative. With each book someone picks up, there are expectations. First there is an expectation of the physicality of the book itself: a rectangular object bound together by glue containing various amounts of pages broken up into any number of chapters. Then there is an expectation of content: that whatever story the book holds is comprised of characters that they hope to connect to, and that the actual story is engrossing enough for the reader to become lost in, longing for more once they re-emerge at its finish.
However, there are books that don’t follow exactly from a typical reading experience. In the past century, authors have been writing novels that challenge the norm, which in turn challenge the reader. Books like Tree of Codes and A Clockwork Orange ask the reader to become much more immersed in the material, to pay more attention than the standard novel requires. These books break the standards of language, story, and even the simple task of reading itself to provide an experience that most other books lack.
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. I believe Foer intended for the reader to be lost, as proven by one of his constructed quotes: “I ran rather than walked, anxious to lose my way. All I wanted was to be unsure. I found myself lost” (Foer 80-81). He says a few lines later, “i went groping into the deep completely unknown” (Foer 82).
Understanding the narrative is another experience, as the language is very colloquial and metaphorical. Sometimes, the text doesn’t even make sense the way it is laid out: “Apart from them, mother and I ambled, guiding our shadows over a keyboard of paving stones. we passed over the chemist’s large jar of pain. we passed houses, sinking, windows and all, into their gardens. Overlooked beyond the margin of time an endless day. An enormous last day of life” (Foer 10-11). Just as he wants a first time reader to be lost in the construction of the novel, he purposefully cut words out to create a language that would require readers to explore more deeply than a regular book. It’s radically different from anything I’ve ever read, a new kind of print culture.
A Clockwork Orange is a similar, yet altogether different experience. While the narrative is a linear one, the language is hard to navigate at first, making the story more difficult to understand. The themes in A Clockwork Orange are vastly different from the ones in Tree of Codes (except for a vague similarity in regards to madness) but the experience is similar, because the reader is exploring a new way of reading.
From the very first paragraph, I found myself completely perplexed at words like droogs, rassoodocks, mesto, skorry, veshches and horrorshow. The second paragraph, which is one long sentence, went like this:
“Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchok some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, nor to do the ultra-violent on some shivering starry grey-haired ptitsa in a shop and go smecking off with the till’s guts” (Burgess 4).
After that, I started keeping a running reference list of slang words that Alex and his droogs, meaning friends, liked to use. This slang is a language Burgess invented for his younger characters called Nadsat, which is comprised of “a mix of modified Slavic words, rhyming slang, derived Russian (like baboochka), and words invented by Burgess himself” (Wikipedia). It was meant to set people of Alex’s age group, teenagers, apart from the adults (SparkNotes).
Once you figure out how to read the slang, the novel becomes more interesting to read and can be appreciated for the messages it contains about society and free will. As suggested in class and on A Clockwork Orange‘s Wikipedia page, Burgess uses a form of brainwashing to make sure the reader comprehends Nadsat as he meant us to. Readers could have just as easily given up on the book, but chose to learn the slang instead so they could read the story just like any other. The same process was involved in Tree of Codes; instead of being “brainwashed” to understand the words, we were motivated to look past the literal holes in the narrative and find a new story within it.
Tree of Codes and A Clockwork Orange are just two of many books that are asking readers to expand their imaginations and be a part of something new. Whether it’s reading a book filled with cut outs, new slang, a non-linear story or something completely different, authors are becoming more creative and more complex to keep reading fresh in our always changing world. I, for one, would rather read an experimental novel than another rehash of the same tired storyline. Maybe it’s not such a good thing that readers have expectations of a book before they even crack the spine or finish the first chapter. It’s better to be taken by surprise and discover a new found love for the unknown, to take a little joy in becoming lost.
“A Clockwork Orange.” SparkNotes. Ed. SparkNotes Editors. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2012. <http://www.sparknotes.com/film/clockworkorange/themes.html>.
“A Clockwork Orange.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Clockwork_Orange>.
Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. New York: Norton, 1986. Print.
Foer, Jonathan Safran, and Bruno Schulz. Tree of Codes. [London]: Visual Editions, 2010. Print.
“Tree of Codes.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Apr. 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_Codes>.