S. is likely to be one of the most unusual books you’ll ever read. And when you find out that the concept for it came from the creative lab that is J.J. Abrams’ mind, you might be even more intrigued. It’s a nerdy book, conceived by nerds, for nerds. It’s also a bibliophile’s love letter to books as slowly dying artefacts, and a resounding no to e-books. As someone who cringes at the thought of e-books, I loved this idea.
The format of the “novel” is that of a story within a story. One is the novel Ship of Theseus, written by the fictional author V.M. Straka in the 1940’s, the other consists of hand-written notes on the book’s margins which form a dialogue between two present-time college students working on discovering the real identity of Straka. Interspersed throughout the book are additional documents (postcards, copies of letters, photographs, newspaper excerpts) physically tucked into the pages. The book is made to appear like an old library copy (from 1949, in fact). There are no references to either Doug Dorst, who wrote it, or J.J. Abrams. Thanks to this format, it’s impossible to sell it as an e-book.
All of this makes for slow, often difficult reading, divided between what’s going on in the novel itself, and the conversation/relationship unfolding on the margins. The plot of the novel is disorienting in its own right, deliberately so. It reads like an amalgam of Melville, Borges, Kafka, and magical realism. S., the main protagonist, suffers from amnesia and cannot recall his identity while being pushed around by invisible forces like fate’s toy (Kafka). He spends a good portion of the book aboard a ship, detailing its daily operations, and trying to fathom its route/destination/mission (Melville). When on dry land, S. is often lost in labyrinthine streets of various unnamed cities, while also going through a series of fugue states of mind (Borges). The whole narrative has a dream-like, almost nightmarish quality, with no awakening in sight.
This is in keeping with the novel’s title, Ship of Theseus. It refers to a thought experiment that raises the question whether an object, stripped of all its components and qualities and fitted with replacements, can be considered the same object. Plutarch, who recorded this as Theseus’ Paradox, asked specifically if a ship, after having all its parts replaced in order to be rebuilt, is still the same ship.
At one point in the first part of the story, the ship S. is being held captive on is sunk in a terrible storm, only to re-emerge, re-built but with a smaller crew, at a later point in the story. S., who himself twice nearly drowns, often asks if he can ever truly recover his earlier identity, or if he should simply reinvent himself after each time he narrowly escapes death. The past, however, doesn’t allow it, and broken pieces of his lost identity continually return to haunt and torment him, never allowing him to move on.
As if all this wasn’t enough brain food, the scholarly detective hunt unspooling on the margins of the book provides its own drama and excitement. Two strangers and college students, Jen and Eric, begin a relationship of sorts when she picks up a copy of Ship of Theseus from the college library where she works, only to find out that someone (Eric) had already underlined sections of text and written comments in the margins. She responds with her own comments and drops the book off at the library for Eric to pick up, which is how their back-and-forth on the book’s margins starts to develop. Jen finds herself drawn into Eric’s Ph.D. research on Straka, and becomes equally obsessed with uncovering the secretive author’s identity. The two don’t physically meet until somewhere in the middle of the book, and by then they’ve already managed to fall in love.
Abrams and Dorst may not be aware of it, but the spiritual post-modern parent of their book is A.S. Byatt’s Possession. The latter also features a story within a story, with two literature scholars racing against time and academic authority to reveal a century-old love story and literary scandal. But while Byatt’s book is a literary masterpiece with a distinctive authorial presence and voice, S. reads more like Dorst’s well-written but derivative exercise in creative writing – which is precisely his expertise – and Abrams’ nerdy brain teaser, worthy of Christopher Nolan. (Bear in mind that Abrams’ strictly directorial work – the Star Trek reboot, Super 8, and now the Star Wars sequel(s) – however good and successful, is derivative by default.) Still, I found S. intriguing and entertaining, and it certainly appealed to the bookworm and failed literary scholar in me.