Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Review: "S." by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

     S. was released late last year, a collaboration between J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Trek, etc.) and Doug Dorst (Alive in Necropolis, The Surf Guru).  The writing is Dorst's, but, as we are told on the back blurb, the book was "conceived by" J.J. Abrams.  

     One thing to know about S., is that it is not simply the content (and contents) of the book that matters, but the book as an object.

    S. is a book within a book (or a book within a box), but in a more literal sense than something like House of Leaves or The Blind Assassin.  The book exists as a physical object instead of mere pages within the containing novel.  As you could see in the two above pictures, the novel within the novel is made to look like an old library book.  This isn't only visual, but tactile as well.  The binding mimics the binding on hardcovers from the '50s.  

     So what's this book about?  Well, the novel, Ship of Theseus, follows a man named S. who awakes in a strange city, sopping wet, with no memory of who he is or how he got there.  He is almost immediately shanghaied aboard a mysterious and disturbing ship, for reasons unknown.

    Ship of Theseus covers the spectrum from fun to philosophical to spooky, and does so gracefully.  Many questions are left unanswered, but in a fulfilling way.  That is to say, in a way that preserves and furthers the mystery.  But The Ship of Theseus isn't all that comprises S.

    Enter Eric and Jen, the two students who are trying to answer the question: Who is V. M. Straka (the fictional author of Ship of Theseus).  Through the margin notes we learn more about the 'author' and the work we're reading.  While the students themselves change, they also discover clues and codes within the novel.  I previously mentioned House of Leaves as a point of comparison with S.  It's also like Pale Fire, insofar as the margin notes go.  But Dorst did something neither Danielewski nor Nabokov did.  Inserts.

These are just a few of the many inserts within the novel.  Pictured above are a fancy business card, a puzzle wheel, and a map drawn on a napkin (yes, that's an actual napkin).  There are also numerous letters, postcards, photographs, and newspaper clippings contained within the pages of S.

Lest we forget, this is also a J.J. Abrams production, so there's a considerable web component to the book, including multiple websites that contain supplementary information not included in the text.  (This blog seems to give a good overview.)

Overall, S. is a fun puzzle and contains a good novel.  A question a lot of people ask is 'how do I read it,' because there are four sets of margin notes, each from a different read/reread of the novel by Jen and Eric.  If you want a (mostly) chronological read, here's what I suggest: First, read the novel and ignore any margin notes.  Then, read the blue/black notes (N.B. Jen writes in cursive, Eric in print).  Then read the orange/green footnotes.  Then the red/purple footnotes.  Then the black/black footnotes (i.e. the ones with black cursive as well as black print).  Read the inserts as they are referenced in the margins.

Overall review:

S.  3.5/5 
The Ship of Theseus 4/5

1 comment:

  1. I purchased this book as soon as it came out. I have yet to start reading it though! I was intimidated by the notes and book within a book within a book...I just didn't know where to begin. Thanks to your suggestions I think I can tackle it now!