Brianne Bilsky is an Assistant Professor of English at the United States Military Academy, West Point. She completed her Ph.D. in English at Stanford University. Brianne specializes in contemporary American literature and media studies. Her broader teaching and research interests include postmodernism, literature and technology, graphic narrative, historical fiction, the literature of war, and the challenges facing higher education in the twenty-first century.
Paper Cuts: Tree of Codes and the Art of the Book
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Tree of Codes (2010) is not an average work of literature. From its content to its form, the book is an experiment in absence, or what some have called a book by erasure. To create his text, Foer took his favorite work, Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, and literally carved out his own story using die cutting, a printing technique more at home in graphic design than in literature.
Rather than work with the white space of a page to register his erasures, Foer approaches each page the way a sculptor approaches a piece of marble: he chisels away Schulz’s words from the very fabric of the paper, leaving behind not just a book but a volumetric narrative—a narrative in which physical depth, rendered visible by textual absence, forms an essential part of the content. By literally removing pieces of text and paper from the book, Foer ironically adds a three-dimensional quality to his narrative, which in turn generates a sense of hyper-presentness.
Such hypermateriality stands in direct opposition to the growing trend toward digitization in contemporary culture and raises important questions about the relevance of form in today’s rapidly changing mediascape. Does the form that information takes—digital or material—matter? Foer suggests that it does. With its aesthetics of absence, Tree of Codes signals the book as an inherently flexible communication system, one capable of co-evolving with screen culture rather than being consumed by it.