Review: S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

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WARNING: There may be some slight spoilers for some aspects of this book in the review. As the element of surprise and the feeling of discovery is one of the pleasures of reading this story, you might not want to know anything at all going in. If you want to read this book absolutely cold, please venture no further, and know only that I really liked it.

S cover

1. The mysterious man known only as S. washes up out of the surf in a nameless town. After a brief encounter with a beautiful woman named Sola, S. finds himself shanghaied and pressed into service on a unspeakably decrepit and awful ship. Soon, S. finds himself travelling the world, at times embedded amongst revolutionaries, labour agitators and more, and hunted by the sinister forces of a weapons manufacturer named Vevoda.

2. V.M. Straka, author of 1949’s  Ship of Theseus, is a mystery to his readership, his true identity hotly debated by scholars even to this day. Most called him, whoever he was, an anarchist, terrorist and a Red for standing up against encroaching militarization and the arms race at the beginning of the 20th Century. Others, including his editor F.X. Caldeira, take a more subtle approach to his politics and supposed mysterious nature. Caldeira’s footnoted edition of Straka’s final novel is an argument for the author’s legacy, and an explanation for his continued place in the literary world.

3. Eric and Jen are two young people attending Pollard State University: Eric is a disgraced grad student formerly of the English faculty and Jen is an undergraduate working at the campus library on the side. When Jen happens across Eric’s marked-up copy of Ship of Theseus while cleaning up the stacks, she finds herself intrigued and leaves a message for him written inside the book. The two use the book as a dead-drop for conversation, with notes and indicia covering the pages as they try and figure out the mystery of the author and his single-lettered protagonist while learning more about each other.

***

The readers of the new novel S., by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams, come across the shrinkwrapped and slipcased text as an artifact, literally to be taken as Eric’s marked up copy of Ship of Theseus. The book is perhaps the best argument I can think of lately for why books on paper can still be so magical. I can only imagine just how complex and challenging it was to create this book, containing as it does a pitch-perfect realization of a 1940s-era text, combined with present-day notes written in pen all over the pages, and various items stuck inside the pages. It even has the library sticker on the spine!

Hilariously, the book also purports to be available in ebook and audiobook form. I can potentially see the book working as its own app, or as a pdf or something, but I don’t really see it making the conversion to epub or mobi format very well. And an audiobook? I’ve been wracking my brains trying to figure out how that might work, as the story is very complicated in both timeline and narrative. I’m kind of ghoulishly thinking of picking it up, just to see how they do the thing.

The main narrative, that of the character S., is very good, reminiscent at times of Kafka’s dream logic hell, Burroughs’ Interzone milieu and especially the world and style put forth in Vladmir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The world we are plunged into as we read about S. and the other people on his ship is absolutely nightmarish, combining spy narratives, descriptions of exotic lands and horrific imagery with lyrical descriptions of same. The propulsive narrative also calls to mind another mono-lettered title, Thomas Pynchon’s V., which has a similar sort of chase narrative and vignettes about capitalism’s rapacious lusts leaving scars upon the earth.

The side narrative of Eric and Jen, relayed to us through their notation, is also very entertaining, once you get used to the conceit. It is made even more difficult, and also rewarding, in the fact that they are speaking to each other through the notes in at least five different time frames, which are indicated to us via different pen colours. The story gets some excellent juice out of not only seeing fun interpretations of what’s going on in the S. narrative by our two co-readers, but also how their own relationship is reflected in the lives of the story they are reading with us. It actually really reminded me of the experience of watching Cloud Atlas, which also crosscut between different stories and eras, with motifs and themes bleeding over between narratives on the fly. (It’s basically nothing like reading the book Cloud Atlas, though, which I also liked).

The extra layer of fun in reading S. comes in the form of various in-story artifacts wedged into the book. I don’t want to say too much about these, as I don’t want to spoil anything, but I found them to be perhaps the most awe-inspiring part of the whole production. It actually got to the point where I was gripping the right-hand side of the book quite hard, as I didn’t want the next item to fall out ahead of turn. I can’t say I’ve ever read a book where that’s happened before.

I also thought about Marisha Pessl’s Night Film fairly often while I read S. That book failed for me on a number of levels, not the least being its annoying use of “extratextual” material, which you can see more of at my review. Where S. avoids that potential pitfall is with tangibility: when I see a website reproduced in the text of Night Film, I’m not for one moment convinced that this is real, as it’s printed and in a book, with Photoshop applied to the pictures giving them a weird Uncanny Valley feel. But in S., the extratextual bits are tangible, in your hand, and thus less initially off-putting. It just feels better thought out to me.

S. also thinks through the idea of a mysterious creator better than Night Film. Stanislaus Cordova, the director at the heart of Pessl’s novel, suffers due to comparisons made between his work in the story with real people like Stanley Kubrick, Mario Bava, etc. In S., Straka is at the web of an entire literary movement in the early part of the century, all imagined by the authors. Again, by making comparisons to things we don’t actually know anything about, the reader doesn’t feel the knee-jerk need to nitpick. There’s also the fact that S. is a great book written about the process of making books, reading books, obsessing about books, arguing about books, and this is all done in plain sight of the reader. Night Film is all about movies, and for me anyway doesn’t do enough work to explain why the ones discussed in the story have such a pull over their audience. It’s harder to suspend one’s belief and go along with the narrative.

All in all, I would definitely recommend this book to people who enjoy metatextual puzzles, like Pale Fire, and the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. If you enjoyed the experience of reading Infinite Jest, with its interplay between footnote and regular story page, you’ll also enjoy this. While I haven’t read it yet, I also feel like House of Leaves fans might also like reading S., as it also plays with form in intriguing ways. I am very intrigued to see how well this does with regular readers, it seems like the Chapters/Indigo stores in town have really stocked up on this book and I have no idea how well it’d play with regular readers, or to J.J. Abrams fans that know him more from Star Trek and Cloverfield.

UPDATE! Apparently the complexity of this package is already pissing off librarians. I guess I can’t really blame them, but it’s still kind of funny: http://litreactor.com/news/s-by-jj-abrams-upsets-librarians

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

6 Comments

  1. It works great as a ebook! I’ve been reading it in iBook for about a week & think they’ et done a tremendous job with it of the add ins & the ability to toggle off and on the Jen / Eric margin conversations. Try something before you knock it sometimes.

    • Do the margin conversations look like handwriting, or are they rendered as regular text? I am very curious to see, but obviously not curious enough to buy the book again…

      • They look like handwriting. Best as I can tell from the few screen caps that I’ve seen of the book, they look identical.

        In rereading my original comment, I can see how it may have come across as a bit snarky. I apologize for that.

        Had I seen all that was included in the packaging of the physical “book” first (with no eBook version to consult), I too would have assumed an ebook would be woefully inadequate to capture the feel of the original.

        I’m actually really impressed that they’ve captured the experience as well as they have. I’m thoroughly enjoying it and have not yet said to myself, “Damn, I shoulda got the print version.”

        My response was much more intended as a counter to your review for other folk like me who have for whatever reasons made a “paperless” commitment and might have assumed after reading your review, “I guess I’ll just have to sit this one out.”

        Thanks for the response,
        Trey

      • Yeah, I guess in my head I was thinking about seeing the book on my Kindle, which is one of the black and white ones, but I’m sure a Fire could probably replicate it okay. As I’m sure you’re aware, the colours used are very important…

        I’m still a little incredulous about an audio version, though. There’d need to be timestamps or something like that for each individual margin note.

        No worries about seeming snarky, I didn’t think you were, TBH.

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