Tree of Codes and the Denaturalization of Reading

This post is offered by Sheldon Campbell, a recent graduate of Wheaton College and practitioner of the book arts. The post was originally prepared as a paper response to a class discussion of Tree of Codes as a “literary artist’s book.”

“Sculptural and Textual Interplay in Tree of Codes”

Tree of Codes is an unusual book. We can’t talk about the text of this book without also talking about it’s shape, it’s sculptural qualities. It’s more than just a book with cool pages. Foer exploits the structure of this book to create an irregular relationship between reader and character: a shared experience that is simultaneously literary  and literal.

An example to begin with is how the book’s physical structure draws the reader’s immediate experience into the story’s sense of time and history. Pages 87-96 contain, textually, a subtle time-shift. This chapter begins with a description of a map. The map is described for 6 pages using only past-tense verbs, phrases like “My father kept…,” “Only a few people noticed…,” and “this was real rather than metaphorical.” However, on page 93, the verbs change to present-tense. We read, “but we are attracted by the pretense of a city.” before long we are told that the “crowd flows by,” and “the tree of codes suddenly appears.” This evokes the sense that the narrator, who a moment ago was remembering his (her?) dad’s map, is now consciously experiencing the present.  Then, on page 96, the tense shifts up into the future tense. For two sentences. The page reads, “the atmosphere becomes possibilities and we shall wander and make a thousand mistakes. We shall wander along yet not be able to understand.” The narrator’s thoughts about the city have now led to prophecies. Finally, completing the cycle, the last sentence returns to both the map and the past tense, “The tree of codes was better than paper imitation.”

The narrator’s attention shifts from past to present to future to past, continuing time-based themes which  run through the story: themes of a crumbling past, a confused present, and a dreaded future. These themes suddenly multiply in poignancy when we consider the physical book we are holding. The pages are full of windows. To the left, wordless cavities, to the right, fragments of words to come. Our reading experience itself has a past, present, and future—all physically visible at the same time in the shape of the gathered pages.

The windows in the pages denaturalize our act of reading. So now the narrator’s journey is superimposed upon our journey through the book. But it gets even better. The windows in the pages also bear witness to the former presence of The Street of Crocodiles. We see the absence and are mysteriously aware of the other (lost) text. The original; another real book! Just outside the realm of the story—the world of the narrator, the father, the city—we are experiencing a parallel journey through a crumbling “city,” a “map,” a “tree” with pre-existing relationships and history.

Secondly, the page windows open new possibilities for figurative language. For example, the phrase “reality is as thin as paper” is inscribed on page 92, but are clearly visible beginning on page 89 where they combines with page 91 to read “reality is as thin sky”. When we turn the page from 91 to 92, “sky” is removed to reveal the words “as paper” Compare this to the textual parallelism on page 96, which reads (in a remarkably Bible-sounding manner), “we shall wander and make a thousand mistakes. We shall wander along yet not be able understand. Reading pages 90 and 91 in sequence we get the parallel phrases, “reality is as thin sky…reality is as thin as paper,” through a material function instead of a textual one. This accomplishes something different for the words. In terms of physical matter we’ve literally only replaced the last words, so the literary device connotes a physical substitution (rich with poetic connotations) more than the phrases on p.96 which strike us more like an auditory recitation structure.

There are also new possibilities for imagery. Examples of this are images like “an enormous geometry of emptiness” on p. 90, a phrase which is surrounded on three sides by an empty geometric space in the page. Or when, on p.88 we encounter the phrases, “a gap between houses,” and, “only a few streets were marked.” When reading these descriptions of the map, we might notice how the leaves themselves look like a city blueprint, there are street-like strips of paper connecting the margins, some marked, some blank, while the holes in the pages appper as the footprints of buildings. We could compare this to the textual imagery of things like the wheelbarrow-shaped stanzas of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” In these examples, the arrangement of the text creates a image on the canvas of the page.

Finally, looking closely at this particular chapter, we can see that Foer can explore questions of representation more effectively by combining the forces of the text and the book structure. This chapter begins with a map that describes the narrator’s city. However, it seems to represent the ciry more deeply than a merely scientific description of space. This colorless, paper-thin image seems to be reality in some sense. We can’t very well parse out comparisons and transitions in these pages. It’s hard to differentiate between what is likened to something else, and what is something else because the sentences are so few and loaded. They slide from one the the next dreamily For example, on page 88 the map is being  described. We read, “that tree of codes shone with the empty unexplored. only a few streets were marked. The cartographer spared our city.” Then the next sentence begins a description of the city’s inhabitants, “One could see wavily reflected in the display windows the inhabitants of the city—creatures of weakness…” Are the display windows depicted in the map? Or are we standing in the city itslef, looking at reflections in windows? The senses of reality and representation are mingled. The very next sentence tell us that, “Only a few people noticed the lack of color, as in black and white photographs. This was real rather than metaphorical…” Are the people “living” as images within a black and white map, or does the map’s colorlessness simply correspond to a real city’s colorlessness? Is the City what’s real instead of metaphorical, or is it the map? We’re still not grounded in either reflection or reality, so both make sense. This pattern of ambiguity continues through the whole chapter. Reality and representations are presented here as confused, conflated, and layered (a very paper-sounding analogy). So to begin with, the literary structure, full of overlapping meanings, reinforces the imagery and description of overlapping realities.


But once again, it gets even better. As mentioned four paragraphs ago, the physical structure of Tree of Codes denaturalizes our reading experience. Since there are gaping holes in the pages, we have the option to read the pages “out of order,” or combine consecutive pages in search of unique phrase combinations. And because these are not conventional options, we are made aware by contradistinciton of the conventions we usually assume while reading. We read from left to right. We read a page completely before continuing to the next. Words make sentences which follow one-after-the-other in a linear sequence. However, Tree of Codes constantly reminds us (both with structure and phrases like, “Reality is as thin as paper.” p.92) that we are reading. Reading becomes visible to us as a mysterious and wonderful thing. We are looking at a code of ink marks, employing a code of grammatical rules to conjure up characters, settings, images and significances which, glancing up from this book, are absent from our surroundings. Yet mysteriously these conjured images seem to describe our world. Our reality and the reality of the book overlap.

Perhaps you, like me, look up from reading Tree of Codes and glance out the window to see a handicapped parking sign. You see a roof. A roof which represents protection and a certain class of people who like multi-colored shingles. You see a Jeep Grand Cherokee from the early 2000s which stands for middle-class moderate adventurousness and probably over 200,000 miles on the odometer, which in turn means upcoming mechanical problems and therefore inconvenience and financial stress for the owner. You ask yourself whether you live in a real world or in a representation. Do we live in a gallery of images? Do we walk upon not the ground but instead an enormous map?

Returning to Tree of Codes, Foer could have just collected the words from Street of Crocodiles and re-formatted them into a 30 page novella. But his choice to retain the shape of an eviscerated book allows the book to conflate our experience as readers with the narrator’s experience. We are aware that as we share his musings they occupy our time. We realize that the words before us, like the world of the story, have a complicated history. We hold the poetic images in our hands as sculptures. “We find ourselves part of the tree of codes. Reality is as thin as paper” (p.94).


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