S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams

This is a kind of play within a book within a book.

Ship of Theseus‘Ship of Theseus’ (SoT) is an old library book about a man who can’t remember his past and is forced aboard a ship with a crew who have their mouths sewn shut. Time moves strangely, as he finds himself in the middle of a resistance he doesn’t fully understand. SoT is the final book by V.M. Straka, a mysterious author who is rumoured to have been part of a number of revolutionary activities (including sabotage and assassination) with a group called ‘The S’. SoT has been translated by F.X. Caldeira, who has also put footnotes in throughout the text. This book belongs to Eric, a grad student studying Straka who has just been ‘expunged’ from the university, and is found by Jen, an undergraduate working in the college library. They communicate by writing notes to each other in the margins of the book, and sometimes by leaving clues they’ve found inside the book, like photos or letters, as they try to solve Straka’s identity and figure out what they both want from life. ‘Real life’ and SoT tangle together in a sort of thriller/mystery about just who Straka was.

Ship of theseus (2)As you can see above, it means that on some pages you have the text of SoT, footnotes by Caldeira and notes by Jen and Eric (the different coloured pens indicate what point in time the notes are from, as they sometimes come back to previous pages when they have new information). If you click on the photo to make it bigger it’s a lot clearer.

You could tackle it by reading the text of SoT first, then going back through and reading it with Jen and Eric’s comments and conversations. But, I think it would be pretty difficult to ignore the notes in the margins and I don’t think it’s supposed to be read that way. I read everything together (every time there was a footnote or Jen/Eric note, I’d leave the SoT text, read that, then go back to SoT). It meant it sometimes took a while to get through a page when there was a lot on it, and some bits didn’t make sense at first (particularly when it was future Jen and Eric) but it wasn’t as difficult as it first appears to keep everything in mind. (It might have helped that I read it over a weekend, rather than in bits over a couple of weeks.) It just felt like all the different elements were working towards something at the centre that, as the reader, you’re discovering by piecing together the different strands and angles.

I cannot rave about the production on this book enough. Where do I even start? The SoT looks and feels like an old library book – the pages are yellowed at the edges and there are even library stamps and a Dewey Decimal sticker on the side. The notes by Jen and Eric look like actual ink; I know they’re printed on but part of me doesn’t believe it. And the stuff you find inside. Never before have I been so excited by a napkin (a real napkin!). It completely feels like you are reading real found object. I think it’s why I didn’t dog-ear the pages as I usually do – not out of weird ‘real book’ fetishizing, but because it felt like it would intrude on what was created, as everything else in there was so deliberate.

Given that the idea for S. came from the guy who wrote Lost, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say not every strand of story is tied up at the end. We can only know what Jen and Eric know and, importantly, what they write in the book, and they only allude to some information that we’ll never have. But I like that in books, when there are gaps for the reader to fill. There’s a lot of hype around this book and, if it does become popular, I won’t be surprised to find innumerable internet discussions on the not-said and potential clues that Jen and Eric didn’t solve (hello chapter 10 footnotes, elevated letters in chapter 8 footnotes and the code wheel). We don’t have the missing pages, we’ll never know ‘the answer’, but it’s not going to stop the internet from trying!

Is it style over substance? Perhaps a little. Ship of Theseus or the Straka mystery/Jen-Eric relationship on their own, or even together but written more conventionally, would be readable and enjoyable enough – alright but not great. Some things also felt a little incongruous – if Straka was so well studied, why had no one discovered Caldeira’s identity until Jen did quite early on (a discovery which shapes their entire interpretation of SoT). All the other academics in this are not just wrong, but pretty rubbish researchers.

But, I don’t care. The experience of reading this book was just really fun and different and I will be reading it again, and raving about how incredible the production of it is to everyone I know (you have been warned).

Ship of theseus (3)

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