Jonathan Safran Foer is no new media man. In fact, he wishes he were an artist.
That is what he told the told the audience of his fiction panel at the New Yorker Festival on Friday night, where he described details of his forthcoming book, Tree of Codes, and explained why calling it ‘a book’ is reductive. Woefully incorrect, even.
The physicality of Tree of Codes will be more sculptural than novel, a response to the changing status of fiction in the imagination of readers. “We’ve become so entrenched in the idea more sensory information makes us wiser,” Foer lamented. “I don’t see how the slowness and inefficiency and intimacy of fiction novels can compete with things like Facebook. But it will, it must.”
The pages will be cut-up portions of The Street of Crocodiles by the Polish novelist Bruno Schultz, in effect removing much of the words, leaving a few fragmented lines per page and a structural system of remaining paper. Visually, the book looks like a Stalin-era government document redacted with an Exacto knife instead of black ink.
At each point in the novel, you will be able to see through a varying number of pages, specifications that were all laboriously premeditated by Foer. “Moving through the pages will be like moving through a city, conscious of dimensions.”
Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor for The New Yorker, asked Foer what we all were thinking: “But are there sentences? Is there a story?” Foer responded pricelessly, bringing the past hour of elevated speechmaking back down to earth. “I don’t like what you’re imagining. That kind of ‘dawn… vagina… scotchtape’ kind of story. This, on the other hand, is a very intelligible story. I could read it to my son and he would understand it.”
Foer shared the stage with Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who is in the process of transferring his own words into visuals through the establishment of a museum in Istanbul based on his novel The Museum of Innocence. One piece in the museum will be a case of 4,192 cigarette butts, hand-constructed of other materials so they will not decompose. The butts, in the novel, are the discards of its heroine, collected by the another character out of infatuation. 4,192 sculpted false cigarette butts “stubbed out as she would stub them.” So Pamuk could relate to Foer’s calculated cut-outs a bit.
Also at the event, this image: