S by J.J.Abrams & Doug Dorst

Posted on: June 15, 2014

Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.

The first thing you notice about J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S is the weight of the book. Yes, it’s a hardback. Yes, those usually weigh more but not like this. Encased and sealed in a thick slip cover, the book is stuffed full of bits of paper, letters, postcards, a little cardboard compass and even a map drawn on a large napkin made of tissue. It’s intriguing, but also fairly hard to manage physically — things do fall out unless you’re reading while placing the book on a flat surface, and when they fall out, it isn’t easy to figure out where to put them back. That’s often the case with nested narratives and meta-text — you have to work out where they go. In this case, it’s a physical requirement, too.

S is a number of things. It is a mystery box. The readers of S aren’t just reading a book called The Ship of Theseus (artfully designed to look like a yellowed, well worn library book, complete with peeling sticker featuring it’s Dewey Decimal numbers and a log of due by date stamps dated as far back as 1957), they’re reading The Ship of Theseus after it has been read and reread and annotated heavily over quite some time by an undergraduate student named Jen and an expunged PhD student named Eric. Their notes fill the margins and they’ve placed long, handwritten letters and postcards and more in between the pages of the book. The ‘actual’ story of The Ship of Theseus is ‘by’ a much revered but mysterious writer called V.M. Straka. In The Ship of Theseus, a man known only as S finds himself aboard a sort of ghostly ship, where all but one of the sailors has his mouth sewed shut. Strange things are happening, but he is unable to work out what he’s doing there or even what is going on around him. There are shades here of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but no sea snakes can be found to absolve the protagonist of whatever sins have caused him to be trapped here.

Trapped in the ship, S is taken to different cities or perhaps worlds in different times of violence. There is a beautiful woman haunting him, of course, but she’s a mystery, as is much else. None of it is particularly original or riveting: The Ship of Theseus as an independent narrative is just not very good. It’s not well-written, it’s not particularly interesting and it goes beyond basic suspension of disbelief that Straka is the writer that Jen, Eric and multiple other academics are so obsessed by. Is Straka meant to be a good writer or just a mysterious one? Is The Ship of Theseus meant to be a good book? Why is it so interesting to so many people? Because it really isn’t to the readers of S.

Jen and Eric take turns with the book, leaving notes for each other in the margins — notes which are initially about the book and their research regarding Straka and then slowly become more personal when moments in Straka’s fiction strike certain chords with the two readers. They confess secrets from their own pasts, share their fears and hopes and even paranoia when they begin to think that a secret society is somehow taking a keen interest in Eric’s work on Straka.

Different coloured ink has been used to print their annotations, and eventually, it is understood that certain pairs of colours go together — green and orange for when they first begin this ‘conversation,’ red and purple for when they finally met and are re-evaluating what they first thought, and so on. Eric writes in an upright, neat upper case script; Jen in a less mature but tight cursive. It’s obviously all very well thought out but it is a strange, knotty narrative, and the story told by these notes is not in any sort of chronological order. How do you read these notes? Do you read everything on a single page in one go? Do you restrict yourself to trying to follow a certain time line of coloured ink then come back to follow another? It’s quite annoying to do either, because you have to push your way into each narrative and repeatedly force your way out, shovel through into another — it’s an absolute rabbit warren of time lines and stories and does start to feel very gimmicky, fairly fast.

Of course, it doesn’t help that everyone knows J.J. Abrams as the show runner for the obsessively watched TV series Lost. Regardless of whether Abrams had anything to do with that terrible, massively disappointing finale or not, he was crucial to the show’s development for quite some time. Given that he is known for taking a simple storytelling trope (‘what if a plane load of strangers crashed onto a deserted island?’) and creating a huge, finely detailed and very elaborate series, it is inevitable that readers will attempt to delve into the same depths for S and try to crack every code it has. But just as Lost ended up a cop-out, S stops shy of explaining itself too. Lost was full of clever clues, almost invisible threads woven into the fabric of the story and multiple fractures in time and space. So is S. Did everything in Lost add up eventually? Of course not. Does everything in S add up eventually? It doesn’t matter — because like with Lost, somewhere along the final third, you begin to stop caring.

It may not work perfectly as a narrative, but S is indeed an absolute marvel of publishing. It’s a great celebration of the physical book and putting it together must have been an intense, incredibly expensive job. The books it brings to mind are Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine trilogy, though those were very much epistolary novels, rather than the sort of meta-text S employs. But the Griffin and Sabine books were a marvel not just because of their physical nature, but also because of the whimsical, mysterious narrative that ultimately worked — whether because they were well-written or because the idea of opening and reading someone else’s correspondence appealed to each readers’ sense of curiosity, it does not matter.

Unfortunately, S is unable to offer the same sort of appeal. Where Griffin and Sabine’s letters and illustrations were always easy to follow, annotations and inserts in S are not — the very fact that Jen and Eric have annotated the book numerous times is enough to cause confusion. Even when read with full focus and concentration, there are pieces of the narrative that seem missing, parts of the puzzle that cannot be forced into place. Not the least of which is why anyone would be interested in Straka enough to spend so much time reading and annotating his book.