Category Archives: Reading

Jenny Erpenbeck – Die Another Day

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Aller Tage Abend (published in English as The End of Days), the story of a re-imagined Jewish life, begins viscerally: at the grave of a newborn baby, which suffocated in its cot. A new life, inexplicably aborted: maybe, the mother asks in a series of what-ifs, the child “needed only a short while to complete something begun in an earlier life,” as some believe? The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away.

She tries to barter with God for the child’s life by offering her own, but in marrying a Gentile she forfeited the right to ask God for anything. The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away. The motions of prescribed Jewish mourning rites are “something that a drowning man might cling to, if at all.” She rails at religion as a source of consolation: “It would be nice… if the world were ruled by chance, and not a god.” Her husband the Gentile, meanwhile, is off drowning his grief in liquor.

Schön wäre es, denkt sie, wenn der Zufall regieren würde, und nicht ein Gott.

Grief spreads out in ripples across three generations of the family, triggering memories of earlier losses. The child’s grandmother remembers the death of her husband in a pogrom; the great-grandmother attends her dying husband on his sick-bed and remembers him performing a funeral wake for his granddaughter, the mother of the dead baby, who was lost to him when she married a Gentile. The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away, is Job’s mantra of resignation to the will of God.

As the three women grieve, each of them also remembers knitting clothes for the yet-unborn baby, slowly threading a new life story into existence as they prepared for a transmutation of their roles as women: the daughter would become a mother, with a daughter of her own, the mother would become a grandmother, and so on. But their new roles are usurped by death, which interrupts the mother-daughter continuum. The metaphorical thread of life is cut; the transformations reversed.

Sie selbst hatte durch die Geburt des Kindes ihre Großmutter in eine Urgroßmutter verwandelt, und ihre Mutter in eine Großmutter, aber jetzt waren alle die Verwandlungen schon wieder aufgehoben.

The widowed grandmother observes her daughter’s grief with something approaching Job’s equanimity. Having barely escaped with her life as her husband was killed in front of her eyes, and forced by circumstances to pick up the pieces and create a new life for herself and her baby daughter, she’s a survivor and understands that the death of someone close doesn’t signal the end of all life. Despite interruptions, life goes on, and the thread continues to unspool: the end of a day on which someone dies is not the end of days.

Sie weiß schon sehr lange, was ihre Tochter von heute auf morgen lernen wird: Am Ende eines Tages, an dem gestorben wurde, ist längst nicht aller Tage Abend.

The final chapter has not yet been written; the story has just begun. What if the baby had survived? What if the parents had had a “moment of inspiration,” eine Eingebung as Erpenbeck calls it, and somehow prevented the baby from suffocating?

In a musically titled “Intermezzo” (interlude), the book suddenly swerves into magical realism. The subjunctive mood, the verb form of wishes and possibilities, takes over the language. The story is re-imagined with a different turn, and the baby that died now gets to live and have a sister and move with her parents to Vienna and be raised as a Christian by her Gentile father.

And yet, death also follows this mutated strand of the story: the trenches of the First World War, famine, and the Spanish Influenza cut short many a life. The girl who escaped death in the cot is now a starving, half-frozen 17-year-old, desperately in love with her best friend’s fiancée, a shell-shocked zombie freshly returned from the trenches. As her best friend is claimed by the influenza, the girl finds the bereaved fiancèe is not interested in a relationship with her, and she goes on to commit suicide. She was able to escape death only for 17 years before it found her again, on a cold winter evening in Vienna. It again feels as if life ended too soon for her, before it was complete(d).

So in another magical interlude, the girl is now a middle-aged writer living in Moscow at the time of Stalin’s purges. She didn’t commit suicide simply because she took a different road home on that fateful night in Vienna. At the beginning of the book, her mother had wished for a world ruled by chance, and Erpenbeck grants her that wish. Death is perhaps easier to come to terms with when it’s accidental, rather than fateful, administered by the hand of God. Schön wäre es, denkt sie, wenn der Zufall regieren würde, und nicht ein Gott.

And yet, because of her writing, which doesn’t suit Stalin’s regime, the woman doesn’t survive in this story, either. Also at the beginning of the book, her mother had wondered if the newborn’s life had originally been so short because she only needed to complete a small mission from an earlier life. If she has magically been given a prolonged life, and several chances, as it were, to give her existence more meaning, why does she keep failing at it? And if she’s granted another reprieve from death, will she be able to do more with her life?

Erpenbeck gives us a main character who is unable to survive her own story, even when placed in a magical narrative structure where anything goes. There is, weirdly, no consolation in the possibility of several incarnations, as none of them seem to “complete something begun in an earlier life,” and a shorter or longer life span doesn’t really make a difference.

If this is a musical novel, with interludes for chapters, then it’s a fugue. Erpenbeck is obsessed with how chance and history collide, repeat themselves, and translate into a personal narrative. In her worldview, death is the inevitable end of each narrative, but each narrative is also a transmutation, a piece of the thread picked up at random, in different times and in different places, and blended into history. And, in the spirit of Whitman, each narrative contains multitudes.

If death is always waiting around the corner, it means we are all constantly fighting to live. In Aller Tage Abend, life is at the same time a battlefront and a story of survival. Put bluntly, each new day on which we don’t die means that we get to die another day. “How many such battlefronts, which could have cost you your life, are there in a single life? It was so tiring, having to endure all the battles in which you didn’t want to fall.” ⌈translation mine

Wie viele solcher Fronten gab es in einem Leben, die einen das Leben kosten konnten? Es war so mühsam, all die Schlachten, in denen man nicht fallen würde, zu bestehen.

Aller Tage Abend thus reads like a series of permutations of one and the same life story that are designed to stall the inevitable progress towards death. In spirit, it approaches One Thousand and One Nights, where stories are also told to postpone death. Reading it in German affords a particular pleasure, as Michel Faber noted in his piece  for The Guardian, because Erpenbeck’s writing is not simply poetical but “incantatory.”

I also agree with his assessment of Erpenbeck as one of the “finest authors alive”: her voice stands out and conveys its message, even in German, across the vast murk of current novel production. Her prose is resonant and casts a spell; you find yourself drawn into it from the first page. There is no room for overwrought drama and pregnant conversations; the delivery is matter-of-fact and surgically precise, even when the narrative form is a fugue. Ich bin begeistert.

I look forward to going back and reading some of her earlier books.

The year in reading – 2015

This is a short post, but might turn out to be a long read if you follow the links below. I wanted to compile a list of newspaper, magazine and online articles published in 2015 that I found to be thought-provoking, fascinating, educational, and/or simply very well written. They come from a variety of differing platforms, and cover diverse topics – from abortion and domestic violence, to the current plight of Jews in Europe, to the fate of Buddhist monks in Tibet. Many of them involve politics, while a few are about arts and culture. I hope they give you some fresh perspectives.

Jessica Machado: The Shame We Carried

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/03/dune-50-years-on-science-fiction-novel-world?CMP=share_btn_tw

Matt Burriesci: The Arts and Humanities Aren’t Worth a Dime

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/04/is-it-time-for-the-jews-to-leave-europe/386279/

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/03/The-Gangsters-Of-Ferguson/386893/?utm_source=btn-twitter-tmblr

The Chair

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/27/holocaust-non-jewish-victims_n_6555604.html?utm_hp_ref=tw

http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/people/the-town-without-wi-fi/#.VLMMTBuXt8k.twitter

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jul/22/rain-is-sizzling-bacon-cars-lions-roaring-art-of-sound-in-movies?CMP=share_btn_tw

It Will Look Like a Sunset

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2015/may/29/its-time-to-wean-ourselves-off-the-fairytale-version-of-farming?CMP=share_btn_tw

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-other-france

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amy-westervelt/having-it-all-kinda-sucks_b_9237772.html

And for those of you who can read Croatian and/or Serbian:

Pismo nepoznatom počinitelju

http://gkr.hr/Magazin/Prikazi/Devet-i-vise-strana-naseg-svijeta

http://www.portalnovosti.com/kinder-ustase

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

 

Reading… “The Haunting of Hill House”

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is The Turn of the Screw of the 20th century. Written in 1959, it reads partly like a Modernist novel, with whiffs of Virginia Woolf in the inner monologues, and partly like a Gothic script in the hands of Henry James. It’s the story of haunting as homecoming.

The strongest resemblance to James’ ghost story lies in the unreliability of the central character’s narrative: her perspective is skewed, and she is constantly second-guessing herself and her motives. In both stories, other characters also experience some strange recurring phenomena, but, as with James’ governess, Jackson’s Eleanor Vance is the only character in the story able to directly communicate with the supernatural elements in the haunted house: these, in their turn, target her specifically and by name.

Both women’s psyches are also, due to some experiences in their childhood, particularly vulnerable and sensitive to currents of feeling and thought that most people wouldn’t register. This seems to turn them into conduits for events that manifest largely on the psychic plain and leave few or no physical traces, thereby eluding scientific, rational analysis.

Both stories also unfold in a remote, secluded house in the countryside. But where the old Gothic manor in The Turn of the Screw is simply an aptly dark, ominous setting for the story, Hill House is endowed with consciousness and intent, which makes it the second central character of the book. It’s also the first we’re introduced to.

“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within…”

Jackson makes it clear right away that whatever is wrong with the house, it is structural, built into it. Later, as we find out more about the nature of the man who built it, it’s suggested that whatever darkness was in his psyche imprinted itself onto the house, like some diseased architectural DNA.

“No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.”

Eleanor’s arrival to Hill House at the beginning of the book is depicted as an escape, a bid for freedom from family ties which carry nothing but bad memories and a sense of suffocation. Although she’s initially scared by the house, it weirdly also feels for her like a sort of homecoming. Jackson writes,

“The house had caught her with an atavistic turn in the pit of the stomach, and she looked along the lines of its roofs, fruitlessly endeavoring to locate the badness, whatever dwelt there…”

An atavism is a recurrence of, or reversion to, something from the past. Eleanor’s gut is telling her that whatever is in the house, she has known it before, and it’s not good for her. And yet, despite herself, Eleanor slowly surrenders to this familiar feeling. As one of the other characters staying at Hill House remarks to Eleanor, “This curious life agrees with you.”

It turns out that the house, claustrophobic and labyrinthine by design, is a vehicle for unleashing the real haunting taking place in Eleanor’s psyche. The house, mirroring Eleanor’s subconscious, takes it upon itself to reveal that Eleanor is in thrall to the ghost of her recently departed mother, who had kept her in psychological and emotional bondage by having Eleanor take care of her invalid self for 10 years, in what would’ve been seen as Eleanor’s “best years.”

This strange correlation of haunting with homecoming echoes Henry James’ less-known short story The Way It Came, where an unconsummated relationship between two people who have never physically met continues to haunt them even after the death of one of them. Their post mortem communication is shown as a homecoming in spirit, where the person being haunted not only accepts the haunting, but even welcomes it.

“Abandoning a lifelong belief that to name happiness is to dissipate it, she smiled at herself in the mirror and told herself silently, Eleanor, you have finally been given a part of your measure of happiness.”

Hill House lures Eleanor by suggesting in its communication with her that this is where she belongs. The house is successful in snaring her, rather than the other people living there, because she can’t let go of her feeling of simultaneous guilt and resentment towards her dead mother. The haunted house is apparently galvanized by a haunted psyche.

Horror stories are what I happily specialize in, and I came to read The Haunting of Hill House via Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, which was directly influenced by it. Jackson’s book is a gem in the genre of ghost stories. Shirley Jackson is a tremendous writer with a talent for very peculiar turns of phrase, and I look forward to reading some of her other works.

Reading… “A Tale of Love and Darkness”

“In Hebrew, ‘fear’ and ‘faith’ are synonyms.”

Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness has a lot in common with two great books: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City.

To the Lighthouse is a book about burying ghosts – specifically, burying the ghost of a dead parent. Woolf lost her mother when she was young, and she grew up in the shadow of her very literary, very intellectual father. She didn’t feel like she could really write and express herself fully until after he was also dead. To the Lighthouse tells us what her mother and father were like, and is her reconciliation with them.

Oz is haunted by the ghost of his mother’s suicide when he was 12 years old, and writing this book is the first time in his life that he’s spoken about it to anyone. In meticulously combing through his childhood memories, he’s looking for clues to help him understand why she did it, and to forgive her. And as if his own memories were not enough, he digs and sifts through the memories of various family members to reconstruct the history of his family in Eastern Europe before the First World War.

“In all these recollections, my task is a bit like that of someone trying to build something out of old stones that he is digging out of the ruins of something that was also, in its day, built out of stones from a ruin.”

Woolf’s book is also a book about war – specifically, WW1. However, war is only mentioned obliquely, kind of suggested through intimations of darkness and destruction, unfinished thoughts and pauses. War is overshadowing all of Woolf’s work, and just how much it affected her wasn’t clear until her suicide note in 1941.

War is also part of the darkness in Oz’s book. Eastern European pogroms, Zionism, WW1, WW2, the Holocaust, the bloody birth of the State of Israel in 1948. This being an autobiographical work, he talks about it very straightforwardly, reliving it through the eyes of the child he then was. However, these wars are just an expression of a bigger, deeper darkness: the centuries-long persecution and hatred of Jews. Oz doesn’t attempt to explain it, only remains somewhat baffled by it.

“When my father was a young man in Vilna, every wall in Europe said, ‘Jews go home to Palestine.’ Fifty years later, when he went back to Europe on a visit, the walls all screamed: ‘Jews get out of Palestine’.”

Istanbul: Memories and the City is also an autobiographical memoir where Pamuk invokes memories of his childhood interwoven with memories of Istanbul in the post-WW2 era. For good measure, he includes literary vignettes about writers and artists somehow connected to the city. The work is a love-letter to an Istanbul long gone, deeply nostalgic and melancholic.

Part of the nostalgia stems from the simultaneous burden and awe of history that a city like Istanbul carries in its DNA. Pamuk does a great job of depicting this sense of history permeating the city. In Europe, only one other city can make this claim: Rome. Jerusalem is pregnant with a similar burden.

Oz, however, barely touches on the historical grandeur of his city. His focus is primarily on the Jerusalem he came to know and love as a child in the 40’s. He approaches it with the same melancholy that Pamuk transfers onto Istanbul, because that city no longer exists. Also, both writers at some point abandoned their cities: Pamuk for work, and because of a hate campaign against him (he dared speak openly about the Armenian genocide), and Oz due to a self-imposed exile at age 14, trying to put behind him his family, his upbringing, his name, and his mother’s death.

And yet, A Tale of Love and Darkness is far more sweeping in its scope than Pamuk’s book. The non-linear story arc encompasses over 100 years of Jewish and European history as well as two Eastern European Jewish family lines going even further back. It paints a picture of what it meant to be Jewish in Eastern Europe, and what Jewishness entailed in Jerusalem during the British Mandate for Palestine, and how this dual heritage clashed in the young Amos.

“A double negation in fact, two sets of brakes, as bourgeois European manners reinforced the constraints of the religious Jewish community. Virtually everything was ‘forbidden’ or ‘not done’ or ‘not very nice.'”

Politics is not eschewed, and Oz makes no secret of his right-wing Zionist roots. He also describes how it came about that he changed his views, becoming a staunch supporter of the two-state solution in Israel.

At its heart, however, this is a book about family and love. It’s a book about how we can never escape from our past and where we came from, no matter how hard we try. And Amos Oz really tried: he escaped Jerusalem for a kibbutz, negating his upbringing, and he changed his last name from Klausner to Oz (Hebrew for “strength”), negating his family’s European, Diaspora roots. A Tale of Love and Darkness is a demonstration of how he failed in these attempts, and how embracing his roots actually shaped his writing.

“I understood where I had come from: from a dreary tangle of sadness and pretence, of longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity, sentimental education and anachronistic ideals, repressed traumas, resignation and helplessness.”

This is certainly one of the best books, and best memoirs, I have ever read. At 500+ pages, it’s engrossing in its eye for detail, waxes lyrical in childhood minutiae, and so poignant in its recollection of emotional states that it made me shed tears in a few spots. It’s also a great read for someone obsessed with Jewish culture and history, as I am. I promise you, it’s a brilliant book.

J.A. Lindqvist and The Swedish Legacy of Stephen King

I kind of stumbled onto John Ajvide Lindqvist’s debut novel, Let the Right One In, in the English bookshop in my hometown in 2009. I hadn’t heard of him before, and was just browsing through the horror/fantasy/sci-fi section without really expecting to find anything. It had been a long while since I’d read anything good in the horror genre, and all the good stuff was not recent.

The cover blurbs were hailing him as the ‘Swedish Stephen King,’ so I bought the book with some trepidation. You don’t lightly compare someone with Stephen King. Turns out they were right, but only up to a point. Lindqvist certainly owes a lot to King, but he’s at this point a better writer than King has been in the last twenty years. In a way, it’s almost as if the Swede picked up where King left off some time in the early 90’s, after he finished The Green Mile.

Let the Right One In was a revelation on three fronts: it managed to inspire real terror in me; it exploited the vampire theme to perfection; and it hungrily ate away at the polished gloss of Swedish society as presented to the rest of the world through the media. (Something the late Stieg Larsson was also very good at.) Its spiritual predecessor is Salem’s Lot, not only because both books feature vampires, but also because they both so masterfully delve into the apathy/empathy dichotomy, a subject that haunts all their books.

Lindqvist also displays a marvellous unwillingness to treat his children characters with condescension, another trait he shares with King. For both authors, children are not innocent angels that need to be sheltered from the evils of the world – they are quite capable of consciously inflicting physical and emotional hurt on others, and wishing them harm. They understand that the universe is not about fair play.

Let the Right One In was followed by a fantastic screen adaptation in its home country, and a horrific one in the U.S., as is often the case when Hollywood feels the need to adapt original material to American audiences. I rank the Swedish film among the top 10 horrors of the last twenty years, and certainly among my all-time favorites.

I just finished reading Lindqvist’s third book, Harbour. Another horror. Lindqvist hasn’t written anything but horror so far. This one is about the dark depths of the sea, ghosts, and grief on an isolated island in the Stockholm Archipelago. I loved the setting because I visited said archipelago a few years ago, and was stunned by its stark beauty and simplicity of life compared to the sophistication of Stockholm. This is kind of where Lindqvist also starts from in the book, but the apparent idyll of life on the island is shown to be an illusion, a clever ruse meant to stave off the evil presence in the water.

The sea in Harbour is not as it is conventionally portrayed, a force of nature that can give but also take away. It is present in everything, yet also a mythical entity with will and intent, bent on intimidating the paltry humans, the late-comers in history who think they can exercise some measure of control over their lives and their surroundings. It brings nourishment and is essential to life, yet it also delivers poison, revenge, and madness. Life on this island is in psychological thrall to the past as regurgitated by the vicissitudes of the sea. There is no escape from the closed, endless loop, and any attempt to do so is severely punished. Very Melville.

Lindqvist can write terror. So vividly, in fact, that you are there in every scene. He builds it up slowly, ominously – it’s in the color of the sea and the glumness of fall in October, in the repetitive rhythms of the lighthouse beam, in the unfinished conversations – and then it grips you. Just like the early Stephen King. He can also write family, friendship, and small-town drama; all King hallmarks. But Lindqvist’s turns of phrase and cultural references are his own, and very distinctly European. It must be said, though, that his English translator has done him great justice.

I’m happy to have found a worthy successor to Stephen King.

Do you like to read horror stories? What are some of your favorites?

Under the Skin – Book Vs. Film

Michel Faber’s debut novel Under the Skin is a thing of alien beauty, and a masterpiece of the uncanny. It should be on the reading list for any course dealing with the literature of the fantastic (T. Todorov FTW!).

Although I came to it only after seeing Glazer’s film adaptation, the book still shocked me with its unique perspective, probably because the movie and the book actually share very little in common other than the main female protagonist and the basic premise of the story. In fact, the experience for me was much the same as first watching Kubrick’s The Shining, and then reading Stephen King’s novel.

In both cases, the directors took the original stories and made them their own by altering a few key points, and of course bringing in their own intepretation, first as readers, then as artists. What this means for me as a reader and a viewer, however, is that comparing the two versions with a view of declaring one better than the other would be misguided and futile. When Glazer and Kubrick decided to put a different spin on a pre-existing twist in the original stories, they created a new, fundamentally different story that needs to be evaluated in its own right, and not just simply compared to the original.

So, back to Faber’s book. The story unfolds in the Scottish Highlands, a stark, cold backdrop that somehow seems fitting for the inhuman(e) activities described in the book. To the author’s undying credit, he doesn’t answer any questions your baffled self might have until the very end, by which point you have become so inured to the strangeness of the story that you really only care about the fate of the (anti-)heroine, Isserly. Faber’s talent lies in convincing you to cross over to her side just as she changes her mind about what she’s been doing with her life. The metaphysics of the ending only further endorses Isserley’s altered point of view.

Faber’s dark sense of humor and satire, so reminiscent of Orwell’s in Animal Farm, is further reflected and refracted through Isserley’s observations of the exploits of the human race. As the embodiment of a fully alien creature, she offers a foreign perspective, speaking from the position of the “other.” Under the Skin can thus be read as a harsh critique of today’s food industry, factory farming, and big business, which is yet another element of surprise in this outlandish book. This story moves you in places where you least expect it to, which, after reading The Book of Strange New Things, I dare say is Faber’s writing trademark.

Going back to the book vs. film issue, I’d say it doesn’t matter at all which one you do first, as they are completely different works of art, and both merit iconic status. Glazer really made the story his own, and like I said, kept only the basic premise intact, but he afforded Isserley the same treatment as Faber, allowing her to change, and allowing the viewer to sympathize with her story. I warmly recommend both the book and the film.

“S.” – The Bookworm’s Book about a Book

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.