Category Archives: story as metaphor

Tree of Codes: an exercise in interpretation

Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer was on my radar for a long time.  It was published in late 2010, but I knew that I wanted to read it with other people because it’s die-cut structure, taken from Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, is so unique (see picture.  He removed text and his story is what remains).  What he has left his readers with is like a heightened, poetic literary experience that feels almost universal because they barely know the narrator.  Its publishing house, Visual Editions, says that “books should be as visually interesting as the stories they tell.” Luckily I have some kindred readers in my life, so we finally got to it after purchasing it at least six months ago.   We had our book discussion last week and realized that we wanted to nerd out, reread it, and reconvene in August for further conversation.   This interview from the New York Times further explains how this book is unique.


One of the most significant parts of our conversation came from looking at the book as a whole and the gaps in between the words: that perhaps they were a metaphor for what we know of people’s stories.  If we only get a small part of the text, what do we do with that information? Do we try to fill in the gaps? Accept that they are there? It made us think about whether we can we ever know the entire story of anything be it a historical event, a person’s life, or anything in between.

What pulled this together, though, was a statement in the middle of the story: “We find ourselves in the tree of codes.”  I am still thinking through what the “tree of codes” actually is, but I keep connecting it to the narrative of life: that there are stories and moments that we are left to interpret and seek out some kind of meaning.  A few pages later it says, “the last secret of the tree of codes is that nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion.”  This, of course, reminded me of reading–how one can read between the lines and take things away from the story, but how in art, and in turn life, interpretations may vary.

The biggest question from the text came on the third page from the end: “what was there to save us?” Having read The Street of Crocodiles after I initially read Tree of Codes, I know the deeper story of the original narrative; that there was a named conflict and that this question was practical.  In Foer’s version, when the conflict and story is more general and open, the question feels even more weighty.  It leads me to think about the different things that people need to be saved from in this life.  It makes me think about hope.  It makes me think about what matters and where beauty and truth and words fall into the picture. It also conjures up feelings of sadness that can surround beauty, as well, and nostalgia, and the wondering if it will all ever fit together.

So, if you want to, find a copy of this book.  It will take you no longer than an hour to read and will provide you with seemingly endless fodder for mid summer thinking if you have been left in a haze of humidity and discussions revolving solely around the weather.  I’ll be back with some continued thoughts in August.

We tipped over the half way point for august. I’m slowly turning my brain on again.

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I have not written on my blog since June.  I have a list of six blog posts in note form that haven’t been fleshed out yet.  Sometimes that is what summer needs to be–not the continual post its of to-do lists.   And now that I am looking at the tail end of August I find myself wanting to process through what this summer was and I’m starting to crave the structure of fall and the mental comfort of post its.  I thought it would be low key and in many respects it has been. But then I reread A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller and realized that my summer has been filled with challenge–in a good kind of way.  It kind of snuck up on me, though.

Miller’s book came out of what he learned in the process when two guys wanted to turn his book Blue Like Jazz into a movie.  He studied what I call in my classroom the “mountain of action” of a story–exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution and came to the conclusion that people can write better stories for themselves–and the book chronicles his attempt at writing a better one for himself.
One of his insights that stuck out to me the most was when he said: “Part of me wonders if our stories aren’t being stolen by the easy life,” (186).  If the end goal of existence is comfort, then there hasn’t been the tension and the challenge and the pain that make a good story worth reading.  I realized as I was reading that this was a lot of my thinking behind a lot of my pursuits this summer–I got scared that I was getting into patterns in my life that were too easy.

I think it started back in May when my book club decided we were going to read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, all 1079 pages of its tiny print.  We wanted something that would be difficult, something that would make us feel accomplished, something that we probably wouldn’t be able to get through on our own.  I used post it notes to set small goals for every 70 pages, which was my weekly goal.  I usually read a book a week and this one took me from June 1st-August 8th.  My feeling of accomplishment waned a little bit when I closed the book and realized that I had a lot of rereading and research to do to make sense of it all.  But.  I’m also the kind of nerd who has been enjoying that process. 
Physically, I am half way through training for a half marathon in September.  Even though I’ve almost always been active, I’ve never been a strong athlete.  I realized that a large part of my life is doing what I want when I want it, and even though this is rather luxurious, I was pretty sure that wasn’t the kind of life I wanted to pursue.  The discipline of getting up and out to run almost every morning and pushing through when I’d rather stop has kicked me in the ass all summer, but in a good way.  I wanted to seek out a big goal that would be difficult (which I have to repeat to myself while running up that cursed gradual hill in Prospect Park).   I’m hoping that this becomes a metaphor for other aspects of life, especially the part about the process, as I’m sure I will not be breaking any records with my race time.

Mentally, I’m trying to be committed to a larger writing project that I have been dreaming about for over a year.  I started it last summer and then put it away for the year.  Apparently, it’s much easier to watch Netflix Instant for a few hours than it is to sit down, think and write.   I’ve had my fair share of days where my ideas seem too jumbled and I feel stuck. In fact, that’s where I am now.  But.  I’m hoping that I won’t give it up just because it is easier to sit on the couch with a book or my laptop or because it is more fun to make plans with friends every night.

Spiritually, I have been thinking about a life well lived.  I lost my grandma about a month ago.  As I shared that with people, the words that kept coming out of my mouth were that she lived a tremendous 95 years of life.  I love the ridiculous stories that my aunts and uncles and dad share about her from growing up. I love remembering how her stories commanded a room and my cousins and I would just be in awe listening to them.  I love thinking about the gallivanting she did well into her 80s with her sister.  I love that she watched The OC in her 90s and loved the villainous Julie Cooper just as much as my cousins and I did.  I also saw the sacrifices that many of my family members made for her at the end of her life to make sure that she was comfortable and surrounded by people who loved her. I can’t help but think that though it was probably one of the most difficult things to do, it is also one of the most admirable. and that there is a huge connection between sacrifice out of love for others and a story well lived.

All that to say, I don’t want to settle for an easier story. Miller also wrote: “Pain then, if one could have faith in something greater than himself, might be a path to experiencing a meaning beyond the false gratification of personal comfort,” (196). 


The only addendum or way to close this conversation about the notion of challenge is that it is so much more bearable when walked with friends and family.  I have an ongoing conversation with two of my best friends about what the perfect place to live is.  The only place we keep coming back to is anywhere, as long as we’re neighbors with good people.  The reading challenges get finished because I read them with a friend.  Running becomes bearable because I have friends reminding me I can do it.  Loss becomes lighter because there is a room full of people who loved the way you did.  

Present.

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Walking into a bookstore is always dangerous for me. I will inevitably find at least five titles I want to read, curse myself for not being able to read faster and choose one that was a serendipitous find…one that I must read, even though the stack of unread books in my apartment is way too high. All that to say (and I fully realize that I am an over-sharer of background information in my story telling) I purchased a hard cover book for the first time maybe ever this fall, I forgot to post about it and it relates to what I had to say about The Age of Innocence. So.

Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz was published the same year I moved to New York (2003) and came at a perfect time: his thoughts on the Christian faith seemed so refreshing and real, something I desperately needed as I left behind the comforts and sometimes small world setting of southwestern Ohio, despite my deep deep love for it. I hadn’t read a book about faith since Henri Nouwen’s Compassion last February and honestly didn’t really have a desire to. But then I saw Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years newly placed on a shelf, I bought it on impulse and read it in three days.

What drew me to it initially is the entire premise is structured around the concept of story: a character, a character who wants something, a characters who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. Miller writes about what he learned after he started working with two men who wanted to turn Blue Like Jazz into a movie:

“In a pure story,” Steve said like a professor, “there is purpose in every scene, in every line of dialogue. A movie is going somewhere.”

“What Steve is trying to say,” Ben spoke up, “is that your real life is boring.”

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but it’s obvious now that in creating the fictional Don, I was creating the person I wanted to be, the person worth telling stories about. It never occured to me that I could re-create my own story, my real life story.

I think the reason I was not interested in reading books about faith is because I grew tired of reading books that inevitably added another to do list to my mental check-list: want peace? Here’s how to attain it. Want to love people better? Try this out. Want to be a better person? Aye. The mere thought exhausted me and seemed the opposite of what a full life should be: checklists.

What I loved about Miller’s book was first was his decision to not live in mediocrity and how he stepped into adventure and beauty. He decided to get up and chase the things that make life meaningful. But, second, he didn’t do this out of naivete, thinking one adventure after another would make a great story. He knew heartbreak would most likely abound and struggle would ensue, but that option is so much better than merely watching other people’s stories from the comfort of one’s couch.

If only Newland Archer had realized this.

The existential questions come round again. Or, lives as novels. Or, justification for an English Degree.

This post is based on and quotes a lot of this Atlantic Monthly article. The entire piece is incredibly interesting. In it, Joshua Wolf Shenk writes of George Valiant and a longitudinal study that he began in the early forties with 72 men attending Harvard, poised for what most would consider an incredibly successful life. The study offers, as Shenk says, a glimpse into the human condition, wondering if there is a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life. Following are some of the most interesting excerpts from the article and a few thoughts about them.

So many of us think that if we attain x, y and z, then we will have “successful” lives. What was fascinating to me (though not surprising, per se) was seeing in a scientific study the fact that in terms of life satisfaction, people matter over education, wealth: In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Being reminded of this always makes me rethink my priorities. My question is if we all know this in the back of our minds, but since relationships can be difficult to maintain, we find ourselves drawn to things more measurable and tangible.

The biggest mystery of life that never leaves me alone is the longing…the underlying feeling that all is not right and the ardent desire to have everything make sense…and while it is not measurable in scientific terms, it is almost the essence of the human experience. “Everyone in positive psychology who seeks to explain the mysteries of the psyche wants deeper stuff. George is the poet of this movement. He makes us aware that we’re yearning for deeper stuff.” I always tell my students to avoid using the word stuff. But here, I enjoy the fact that this scientific study needed a person to be its poet; to wonder about the threads that make us all human, the things that make us all feel.

Can the good life be accounted for with a set of rules? Can we even say who has a “good life” in any broad way? At times, Vaillant wears his lab coat and lays out his findings matter-of-factly. (“As a means of uncovering truth,” he wrote in Adaptation to Life, “the experimental method is superior to intuition.”) More often, he speaks from a literary and philosophical perspective. (In the same chapter, he wrote of the men, “Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.) This is one of the greatest parts of the article to me. We are all obsessed with the three points to make us deeper thinkers, or the ten steps for a more meaningful life, or for someone to just tell us what to do so that we can get our lives together. But. We are not wired for that kind of existence and there is beauty, deep deep beauty, in humanity that cannot be contained in rules or generalizations or lists. Sigh.

With this level of intimacy and depth, the lives do become worthy of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.
And this is what I love. It always, for me, comes back to story. All I have wanted to do lately is to read and write. As I was walking around a book store this week, I kept wondering what I am hoping to accomplish by my incessant reading: I have at least ten books at home waiting for me and dozens more I can’t wait to read sitting on the shelves of shops. I keep returning to the novel because each one offers a window into humanity. I find myself continually seeking out the story.

Perhaps in this, I thought, lies the key to the good life—not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises… For all his love of science and its conclusions, he returns to stories and their questions.

Sigh. No more words.

Exile.

I recently finished Exile by Richard North Patterson which at first glance looks like a the pulpy mystery novel that it is, whose intent is to have its reader driven by the plot alone to race through its 750 pages. However, its research based subject matter, the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, was both insightful and thought provoking.

A culturally Jewish lawyer, David Wolfe, is about to enter a career in politics and is engaged to a woman, daughter of a holocaust survivor, highly connected to the Israeli population in the United States and overseas. However, when the Israeli Prime Minister is assasinated in San Francisco, he is asked to defend Hana Arif, the Palestinian woman he was involved with 13 years prior, as she is the main suspect in the killing. What follows is the unravelling of not only who was behind the assassination, but a close look at the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

There are two main things I walked away thinking about: the ways that one culture shapes our thinking and concerns and the question of how we are ever going to be able to overcome our prejudices and hatred.

One question I often think about is how are we meant to live? Much of American culture is defined by the value of personal freedom and individualism. It becomes very easy to have a lackadaisical attitude toward life and to be consumed by details that are often meaningless in comparison to those in other nations. How are we meant to live? I can’t believe that being naive to the world’s issues is the way. I think it’s important to be thankful for the certain freedoms that we have here, but at the same time to notice its own frailties and shortcomings…the obsession with having more stuff, or forgetting what community means or thinking that everyone else covets what we have.

Those who have grown up amidst war and violence obviously have a completely different perspective; one that I will never be able to truly understand and can only enter into through books and art.

So I suppose that I can try to answer to two questions I raised the same way: we must live by knowing one another’s stories and therefore fostering an understanding and sharing in one another’s pain and by doing so, slowly letting go of the hatred and prejudice that poisons humanity.

I’ve been trying to plan this post for weeks…but I always seem to lack the words to do so. The complexity of life makes it nearly impossible to name an answer or to attempt to really understand. And then my white, educated, American background sometimes leaves me feeling not privileged but naive. I would like to have hope that we as people can humble ourselves and not live out of pride and fear, but out of love and grace. But sometimes that seems like an impossible task. Perhaps we are all permanently exiled from our true Home in this life. Things are not as they should be and I just don’t know how to handle it.