“An enigmatic, jumbled love story about story-loving.”
Stop me if you recognize the following plot elements, perhaps from a popular television show of not-so-long-ago: a multi-level mystery, cryptic islands, strange markings that crop up everywhere, repeating numbers, a persistent undertow of whispers, vaguely familiar characters with questionable motives, malleable timelines, red-herring clues, conspiracies that cross time and generations, lethal black substances…
Well, I could go on.
Written by novelist Doug Dorst, as envisioned by filmmaker J.J. Abrams, ‘S’ is as much a descent down the proverbial rabbit hole as it is a novel. A mind-fuck, wrapped in a library book, inside a slipcase—literally. The actual physical book within the slipcase entitled ‘S’ is called Ship of Theseus, the title of which refers to a philosophical paradox that posits the following scenario: If a ship had every plank, mast, sail, window, and nail completely replaced with exact physical replicas, is it still the same ship afterwards, or an entirely different vessel despite being identical to its predecessor?
And this is just where the confusion begins, though this isn’t to say that with the mounting perplexity one experiences in trying to connect names and identities and scenarios across nearly five-hundred pages of vaguely shifting time lines and places, this process couldn’t also be rather enjoyable. After all, Abrams does have a knack for intriguing premises that, though don’t always cross the finish line with their heads intact, at least offer some heart and soul along the way.
Essentially three stories run through ‘S’, the first being the main narrative of the novel itself. Ship of Theseus, as written by an enigmatic author of eighteen previous novels named V.M. Straka, revolves around an equally mysterious man known only as ‘S’, who finds himself wandering a strange city at night with no memory of who he is or why he’s there, and who is soon abducted onto a mysterious ship without a name run by a crew of near-automaton bedraggles with sewn-shut mouths. He eventually escapes, only to find himself caught up within a resistance fighting a rising cabal bent on amassing and selling weapons for some inexorable conflict. Through the course of the story, ‘S’ goes from abductee, to criminal suspect, to resistant fighter, to assassin, all the while pursuing a mysterious woman with dark hair whilst struggling to rediscover his own forgotten identity.
And if that isn’t puzzling enough, a grungy little monkey is thrown into the mix to, well, why not?
Bolstering this main narrative—or further stirring it from any semblance of cohesion—are the chapter footnotes which follow the observations and research of one F.X. Caldeira, Straka’s translator from Czech to English. Along with augmenting chapter information, Caldeira also seeks to piece together the obscurity of the author whom he has only met briefly before disappearing under dubious circumstances, leaving the manuscript of Ship of Theseus finished save for the final tenth chapter which Caldeira undertook personally.
Calderia is as much a cipher as is the character of ‘S’ in the Ship of Theseus story, one whose identity and rhetorical prowess is often questioned and even refuted by the third “story” element of ‘S’.
Comprised exclusively of inserted ephemera and riddled with margin notes written by hand in different color inks, it is the segment of the whole of ‘S’ that gives the book its singularity, and which raises it above a muddled, albeit decently paced at times mystery. These are provided by a former university grad student named Eric Husch, and current student, Jen Heyward, who one day while researching the mystery of Straka, discovers an already notated copy of Ship of Theseus in the library. Deciding that the person using the book clearly needs it for ongoing research, Jen returns it to the shelf, but not without adding a note of her own, thus initiating a back-and-forth correspondence that runs for months.
Their memos begin innocently enough as they attempt to piece together the mystery of Straka’s disappearance, and of whether or not he was merely the penname for anyone of numerous contemporaries. But Eric and Jen soon find themselves under surveillance, both by rivals at the university as well as shadowy factions surrounding their investigation, though it’s never clear if the latter is a genuine threat, or just a figment of their collective imagination.
They also, not too surprisingly, start to gradually fall in love.
The problems with the book are several, though none are crippling, the primary one being that it hews, perhaps inescapably so, too closely to Abrams’ Lost. ‘S’ clothes itself as a genre mystery story without actually really solving anything. The characters in the Ship of Theseus don’t rise far above archetypes, and are only marginally developed in order to propel the plot forward.
Dorst’s prose is stilted and baroque, though that’s likely a deliberate choice to imbue the work with period verisimilitude (Ship of Theseus was “published” in 1949). It does cheat this rather cleverly by having Eric and Jen sometimes point out the heavy-handed and even formulaic nature of the prose, as well as embellishments and lapses of consistency. They’re as much critic to Straka as to Caldeira, an example of ‘S’s’ meta nature calling attention to itself, sometimes to its own detriment.
When the journey works however, it does so with a Saturday morning serial’s compulsion. The early to middle chapters where the character of ‘S’ is on the run move at a healthy page-turning pace, and little by little, as clues are revealed to him about his identity and purpose, the same is happening to Eric and Jen. And while not all connecting strands are obvious or even understandable without a floor-to-ceiling flowchart to accompany you, Dorst does a decent enough job of keeping the true emotional arc centered between the students. You do end up caring about Eric and Jen at the end. The aches and existential quandaries the characters often coldly reflect upon within Ship of Theseus mirror the students’ own rawer experiences as they search for meaning and purpose to their own lives.
In one of her more intimate notes to the more analytical Eric, Jen states: “Maybe you don’t solve the big mystery, but you find smaller truths. That’s not a bad thing, is it? More time to just be with the books, yourself, someone else…” This is later echoed, though more ironically, by the character ‘S’, who says at one point: “It’s safer, isn’t it, to be a glass-smooth surface of ignorance? To offer no purchase to those who seek it?”
But when it comes down to it, the physical book itself is the most engaging aspect of ‘S’. Crafted to look like an old library book, it’s replete with lending stamps and dates. The pages are foxed and stained to look aged, and even the repeated printing process has imbued it with a vague ammonia smell evocative of old acidic paper.
The Eric and Jen margin notes are printed into the book beautifully. Pencil looks like pencil. Inks are often in different colors and either in pen or marker, sometimes jumpy and jagged, sometimes faded from overuse or pressure inconsistencies, suggesting repeated usage and a passage of time.
The inserted ephemera is just as fun, albeit adding more often to the confusion than abating it. Consisting of letters, postcards, maps, scraps, and photos, this move has proven something of a controversial decision by the publishers. Numerous libraries have already reported an inability to keep the book in stock for consistent check-out as they’re being returned often with either inserts replaced between the wrong pages, or missing altogether.
It should be noted that the book pretty much works as a stand-alone read without the inserts, but having them adds an extra dimension of distracting fun. Think the smoke monster, the hatch, the polar bear, the two bodies found in a cave, and you get the picture of their intriguing, yet ultimately whimsical nature.
Though flawed and far from perfect, ‘S’ ultimately ends up as a quintessential journey book, about the universal struggle of identity, with a love of the written word at its heart. The amorphous character of ‘S’ captures this essence towards the end: “Story is a fragile and ephemeral thing on its own, a thing that is easily effaced or disappeared or destroyed, and it is worth preserving. And if it can’t be preserved, then it should be released and cycled.”
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Read his fiction appearing in our Artemis and Dionysus issues: “Beyond The Eye” and “Meat Sweats”