Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Story at the Margins

I recently finished reading a book that I can't recommend, and have to recommend. I found it a bit of a slog, and I was intensely intrigued. It's a tough one to review, needless to say.

The book is titled S, written by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams. Yes, that J.J. Abrams. First published a couple of years ago, Abrams actually originated the idea, handing it over to novelist Dorst to bring to fruition. And it's that idea that's incredibly compelling. (We'll get to the execution in a bit.)

S comes in a slipcase with a seal you actually have to break to release the book. Once it has been slid from the case, there's no further hint of the book's true identity. Instead, a masquerade has begun. You are holding in your hands a decades-old library book entitled Ship of Theseus. The cover is worn (and bears a Dewey Decimal filing sticker on the spine), library checkout dates are stamped inside the cover, and all the pages are stained at the edges from the ravages of time.

Ship of Theseus is presented as the 19th and final novel published by the mysterious and reclusive (and fictional) V. M. Straka. It was completed just before his unusual, possibly staged, death -- and may actually have been finished by a longtime collaborator who he never met face to face, F.X. Caldeira. Caldeira, fluent in numerous languages and responsible for multiple translations of each of Straka's novels, annotated this final novel with extensive and cryptic footnotes. It's believed among literary scholars that these footnotes hold a secret key to Straka's true identity -- or that they at least were an attempt by Caldeira to reach out to the still-alive-but-in-hiding Straka after his "death."

But we've only just started down the rabbit hole. This particular copy of Ship of Theseus comes from a university library, and has been the object of intense scrutiny by two people. Eric is an expelled graduate student trying to uncover Straka's true identity. His thesis advisor has stolen Eric's work and plans to publish a book revealing "his" theory. Jen is a college senior who works at the library, suddenly realizing that the life waiting for her after graduation may not be the one she truly wants. Taken by the writing of V.M. Straka, she finds this copy in the library, filled with Eric's penciled-in investigative notes, and decides to write back. The result is an entire interaction between Jen and Eric, avoiding a face-to-face meeting, passing the book back and forth every night via the library and gradually filling its margins with their hand-written exchanges.

Every few dozen pages or so, there's an extra surprise waiting for you -- something actually inserted into the book by Jen or Eric. You get letters each wrote to the other. There are postcards from travel, photos and newspaper clippings that accompany their research into Straka. There's a napkin with a crudely sketched map, and an actual code wheel used in trying to crack the hidden footnote messages.

This multi-layered experience is, quite simply, an incredible idea for a book. It's very cleverly presented, too. Jen and Eric's comments appear to be authentically hand-written on every page. They come from a period spanning several months, and are not strictly chronological from cover to cover. Through the use of different colors of ink "over time," you can delineate different comments as coming from different points in the relationship: there's Eric's original notes before "meeting" Jen, remarks from early in their friendship, comments from when their joint hunt for Straka's real identity has begun to bear fruit, and comments from when that fruit has attracted unwanted attention both from Eric's scheming thesis advisor and a shadowy organization that may be out there trying to protect Straka's secrets.

One of the remarkable things about S is that you can choose to read it in any number of ways. You could first read Ship of Theseus itself, perhaps looking at Caldeira's footnotes but avoiding Eric and Jen's margin notes. You could read those margin notes page by page, or use the "color coding" to read them chronologically. You could read the entire thing cover-to-cover, mentally locking all the pieces into their proper spots in the timeline (as I did). The reader has incredible agency in reading this book.

The problem? It's not a very good book. Eric and Jen's storyline is fairly engaging, even if several bumps in the road seem to resolve too quickly and neatly. But Ship of Theseus is, quite simply, terrible. The conceit of the entire affair is that this book would somehow have inspired scholars all over the world to speculate about the man behind the masterpiece. But the writing isn't dense in the way of a classic piece of literature, it simply ambles all over the place. Tedious and monotonous, it feels contorted (as in truth, it is) simply to provide sentences for Eric and Jen to underline and either scrutinize for clues to Straka or wink at parallels in their own lives. Ship of Theseus is so snail-like in plot that it's hard to remember what you've just read on the previous page. At numerous points, I strongly considered abandoning that element of the book just to complete Jen and Eric's story; finishing it was a relief, not a resolution.

So, in terms of dramatic satisfaction, I simply can't recommend S to anyone. It's too dull, too dry. But in its narrative structure, it's one of the most compelling ideas for a novel I've ever come across. And it's so lovingly produced, with the "aging" of the book, the authenticity of the included bits, and the appearance of the "hand-written" notes. It's just so damn clever and cool, it's a shame it couldn't be better.

Forced to put some kind of grade on S overall, I suppose I'd call it a B. But that's a strange synthesis (not average) of an A for concept and presentation, an F for Ship of Theseus, and a B- or so for "the trials of Eric and Jen." If it sounds cool to you, you should pick a copy and try it for yourself. If it sounds like a gimmick to you, it's certainly not going to win you over.

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