Reading Regret, Writing Regret
Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon Map the Pain of Abandoned Worlds
Fountain City: a novel, wrecked
by Michael Chabon
(Booklet published as part of McSweeney’s Issue 36, $26)
Tree of Codes
by Jonathan Safran Foer
(Visual Editions, $40)
Whose regrets are more painful, writers or readers? Michael Chabon makes a case for the plight of writers in Fountain City, his entry in the new issue of McSweeney's: an unprecedented first-person look into the heartbreak of writerly failure, of the One That Got Away, by a great writer. Described by Chabon as "a novel, wrecked by Michael Chabon," Fountain City is a booklet. It contains the heavily annotated first four chapters of a novel that Chabon wrestled with for five years before abandoning the thing—he describes it as "stepping out on" Fountain City—to write the novel that would become Wonder Boys.
Fountain City is a remarkable map of the geography of a writer's mind. (Map is the only word that works here; as if to guide the reader into accepting that imagery, the book comes wrapped in a large reproduction of the maplike watercolor of a fictional Washington, D.C., that inspired the novel in the first place.) Chabon's laments, spinning off from the main text on facing pages, range from typical writerly stumbling points when beginning a novel—the main character is too passive—to more glaring warning signs that the book is resistant to good sense, as when the protagonist decides to take two pointless trips for no sane reason at all.
If you attend enough readings, you are bound to get glimpses at aborted works by authors, as when Daniel Handler, appearing at Seattle Arts & Lectures in September, castigated himself for spending years on a novel about the pain of being an adult orphan. But early on in Fountain City, you realize that the novel's flaws were as invisible to Chabon as flaws in your character are invisible to you. For five years, he never considers that making his main character an architect is a problem, even though he never does any serious research into what an architect does all day. This early incuriosity becomes the subject of much introspection for the elder Chabon, along with other topics: why he writes so many gay male characters, why he lavishes such loving detail on the pajamas of his characters (he reveals that he sleeps in the nude, unintentionally setting thousands of horny book-lovers to swooning with a single footnote), and the heartbreak of being an American who loves Paris too much.
Chabon's regret is florid and thick, and perhaps the most telling sign of the novel's failure is that the reader is left with a desire to read hundreds more pages of Chabon's commentary, even as the memory of his wrecked novel fades quickly from memory.
In the face of all that toil—five years of a man's life, gone!—how can a reader's regret begin to compare? Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, Tree of Codes, is an act of aggressive reading. He literally carved Tree of Codes out of Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles—he cut away words from the page (an erasure in the style of Tom Phillips's gorgeous A Humument or local author Jennifer Borges Foster's sumptuous magazine Filter) until finally he found another story hidden in the text. New London publisher Visual Editions pioneered a new publishing process that mass-produces Foer's excisions precisely—every page of every copy of Tree has been die cut, leaving only Foer's choice of words where Schulz's text once was.
The sentences Foer uncovers are rough, alien: "the city rose toward the center of the map honeycombed streets, half a street, a gap between houses. That tree of codes shone with the empty unexplored. only a few were marked. The cartographer spared our city." (Maps again!) These lines have the weird gait of Schulz's language, only they move even more briskly, with a fascinating new limp. Inside the larger book, Foer finds a story about family, the end of the world, the tiny cities we carve out of the larger cities we call our home, and the missed opportunities of all the half-familiar streets in our own cities that may as well be invisible to us because we never choose to go down them.
In the afterword, Foer explains that he was motivated by readerly regret. Schulz is his favorite writer, and his legendary lost novel, Messiah, is a book whose possibilities will forever haunt the younger writer. And so he went searching for another book hidden inside one of Schulz's few published works. What he found, he writes, is "a dream that The Street of Crocodiles might have had."
With his editing, Foer makes Schulz's words address the idea that anyone might discover new work in the text of an author who has died: "We have lived for too long. We wish. We wish; we want, we want we want—'We are not,' he said, 'long-term beings. not heroes of romances in many volumes... We openly admit: our creations will be temporary.'"
What Schulz knew, what Foer discovered over the course of exalting Schulz's words by taking a knife to them, is that the reader's regret is as powerful as the author's, because the reader continues to wonder what could have been, long after the author is gone.