BOOK: S. by Doug Dorst & J. J. Abrams (2013)

booktitleThis gorgeously crafted object is not your ordinary book, something you’ll realize the moment you slide it out of the box it comes in and discover that rather than a contemporary novel titled S., you are instead holding an old cloth-bound library book, complete with faded spine label and date due stamps, titled Ship of Theseus.  

Crack that puppy open, and what you find inside is even more unexpected:  a ton of scribbling in the margins (librarians everywhere here gasp collectively in horror), plus a wide variety of artifacts tucked inside the pages — a map drawn on a napkin, a photograph, some postcards, a letter, etc.

Once you begin to read, it all becomes clear.  Well, “clear” might not be the right word, but the conceit is revealed — S. is actually three stories in one (or 4, depending on how you count them), the combination of which tell a story spanning generations about a mysterious author (or body of authors, perhaps), intrigue, political/social dissent, and love.

The first of the three stories is the actual novel Ship of Theseus itself, (fictitiously) written by a man named V.M. Straka.  Ship of Theseus is about a dude, known only as “S.,” who wakes up one day with no memory of who he is or where he came from.  S. quickly finds himself hurtling through a bizarre journey that involves being kidnapped by pirates who may or may not be ghosts, falling in with a crowd of dissidents being hunted by a violent gang of Bad Guys in Power, and developing a pretty all-consuming crush on a woman he doesn’t actually know and can’t actually find.

The second story trails through the book through its footnotes.  This edition of Ship of Theseus was (fictitiously) translated by someone named F. X. Caldeira, whose introduction and footnotes throughout the novel are, we come to learn, lightly disguised codes — messages that reveal information about Straka’s life and identity.  (Sort of.)

The third story is the one written in the margins — notes to and from two college students in the present day.  The first is the book’s owner, a graduate student named Eric who stole this copy of Ship of Theseus from a local library (again with the collective librarian gasping) when he was a teenager and has been obsessed with Straka’s writings ever since.  He’s working on his thesis about Straka, but has been ousted from the school after a series of scandals we gradually learn about as we go.

Eric left the book out in a university library study room one day, and returned to find notes in the margins from someone else — an undergraduate named Jen.  Soon, the two are writing to each other, getting to know one another through their observations about the story and the way they tie those observations to their own lives.  There’s also a sort of menacing subplot in which Eric’s old adviser, and/or someone else who doesn’t want Eric and Jen to be looking so closely at Straka’s life, may or may not be following them around, might or might not be breaking into Jen’s apartment, and is or possibly isn’t acting totally scary.  

(By the way, some people consider Eric’s teenage penciled notes to be the 3rd narrative, with the ink-based scribbles between him and Jen the 4th. But since the penciled notes don’t tell a story independent of the ink-based ones, I count them all as one. Just in case you were wondering.)

For those who found Mark Danielewski’s experimental novel House of Leaves impossible to get through, this is probably not the book for you.   I loved House of Leaves, and it’s why I was drawn to S. — the experimental nature of both books is something I find energizingly creative.

On the other hand, while I greatly enjoyed the primary story, Ship of Theseus, the correspondence between Jen and Eric didn’t do all that much for me.  It’s sweet how they fall in love with each other and their voices are very authentically young-20-something and blah blah, but the “is the menacing adviser after them?” element doesn’t go anywhere, and neither, really, did their intensive probing of Caldeira’s footnotes and Straka’s life.  Plus, while the items tucked into the pages are interesting, and wonderfully designed in many cases, most of them didn’t have any obvious purpose or meaning or even relevance, which was confusing.

By the time I hit the end of the book, I felt pretty dissatisfied with all of these extraneous elements on the whole — there wasn’t enough resolution to any of the pressing questions for me, and the intriguing addition of the sinister goings-on in the present doesn’t end up amounting to anything, which kind of felt like cheating to me.  Though, frankly, it’s not at all out of the ordinary for a J. J. Abrams project to be filled with tantalizing subplots that go nowhere and/or an ending that is wholly dissatisfying, so it’s my own damn fault if I was expecting something else. (Incidentally, while Abrams has gotten almost all the press for this book, he was merely the concept man — Doug Dorst wrote the entire thing, and while I’ve never read anything by him before, after reading Ship of Theseus, I’m definitely going to be looking for more of his work.)

Overall, I absolutely, whole-heartedly recommend this book simply for the unique, creative experience of reading it.  It’s a gorgeous artifact, to boot — it’s a beautiful, lovely, wonderful physical thing. Plus, as I keep saying, I enjoyed Ship of Theseus, which is weird and dark and fascinating, even while it too has elements that don’t quite hold up.

That said, if you get into this thing and you find you can’t keep up with the footnotes and the scribbles and the postcards and other whatnots, just give yourself license to skip all of that and stick to the primary narrative.  You won’t be missing much, really, other than the experience of experiencing such a unique experience.  That’s not worth nothing, if you ask me, but ultimately the Eric/Jen part isn’t satisfying enough to be worthy of any degree of struggle.  The uniqueness of this book lies in the Theseus story and in its physical form — all the rest is somewhat lumpy gravy.

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