Saturday, July 23, 2011

Style vs. Story

Recently, a favorite author of mine, Jonathan Safran Foer, released a new book. It had been so long since he last released a fiction novel that I had forgotten to keep tabs on him and the book slipped onto the shelf without my knowing. I was surprised and enthralled the second I saw it nestled next to his other novels (Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). The title-- Tree of Codes-- immediately intrigued me as it sounded whimsical without stepping too far into fantasy. Before my mind was even aware of it, my hand was reaching for the book, nearly shaking with excitement. As the tips of my fingers made contact, however, I was distressed not to feel the firm paper texture of a normal cover, but the slippery slickness of plastic wrap.

DENIED! My heart sank. Furthering my frustration even more, the covers of the book contained no useful information as to the contents, and the steep $40 cover price (for a paper back!) made even the purchase of the book out of reach.

Quick! To the internet! I made a mad dash to the nearest computer to discover why my dear Jonathan Safran Foer would betray me so! The findings were intriguing:

I was shocked to find that the book looked more like a a child's craft project than a normal book. The insides were too delicate for me to run my sticky fingers over without handing over the money first. Foer had painstakingly dissected another book, Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, in order to produce Tree of Codes. I flew into outrage.

Why produce a book so delicate that it can't even withstand the daily handling of a bookstore? And could this book even really be all that good if it's not Foer's original words?

I cannot answer these questions. Like I said before, the $40 is out of my price range, even with the employee discount, and as much as I love Jonathan Safran Foer, I can't bring myself to purchase a book I can't flip through first. But this leads me to my main question: When does the style of a book begin to get in the way of the story? And can the two ever work together?

I think the best examples of the Style vs. Story dilemma come from Mark Z. Danielewski, author of House of Leaves and Only Revolutions. House of Leaves uses stylistic choices like colored words, one-word pages, upside down pages to enhance and work alongside the unique and creepy story. Only Revolutions tries the same thing, only amplifying the techniques to the point where the book becomes convoluted and nearly impossible to read. While the former uses style to add a new element to an already excellent story, the former supplements with style where it lacks a cohesive story entirely.

So which category does Tree of Codes fall into? Is the $40 and plastic wrap worth the treasure inside, or do both serve to mask the fact that no story actually exists? I don't know. You fork over the $40 and then let me know.

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