Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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

The glossy black book jacket has an ornate letter "S" across the front, but when you remove the book, you find a simple, gray, worn-looking library book from 1949: The Ships of Theseus by V.M. Straka.

Opening the book, you can't help but do a double-take, because the margins are filled with scribblings in black and blue ink: a written conversation between two strangers who have found the book and are trying to get to the bottom of the enigmatic circumstances surrounding Straka, about whom there are many theories.

Meet "S": the protagonist in The Ships of Theseus, an amnesiac man on a quest to discover his identity.

Meet Straka: the author and suspected anarchist whose identity is shrouded in mystery, the only apparent clues to which have been left behind in his writings.

Meet F.X. Caldiera: Straka's translator and editor who seems to be leaving coded messages in the footnotes.

Most importantly, meet Jen and Eric.  She's a college senior who found the book during her shift working in the library, and he's the Straka-obsessed ex-graduate student who left the book.  Read along with Jen and Eric as they puzzle through the novel, the footnotes and the dozen supplemental materials they've left in the book, including a clipping from the college newspaper, postcards from a faraway place, a napkin with a map sketched on it, and much more.  Watch as the duo realizes that the mysteries surrounding Straka are much more sinister than they ever imagined, even to their own endangerment.

Truly J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst have done something special here.  Abrams, of course, is best known as the TV producer and filmmaker responsible for creating "LOST", as well as directing the recent "Star Trek" films, not to mention the upcoming "Star Wars" sequel.  While Abrams' film credentials may be a turn-off for some avid readers, it is clear that he has a deep and abiding appreciation for the written word.  In an interview, Abrams revealed that the inspiration for S came from an airport layover years ago where he picked up a book that had been left on a seat at the boarding gate, and found a written message inside instructing whoever found the book to enjoy it and then leave it for someone else.  In Doug Dorst, novelist and professor of creative writing at Texas State University, Abrams found the right writer to realize his vision.

The reading experience is richly layered: one story unfolding in the text, another in the footnotes, another in the margins, and all three somehow connected.  The Ships of Theseus itself is a surreal and at-times creepy polemic against heartless corporations, rich with subtext that is not always immediately decipherable.  The footnotes are alternatively informative and fallacious, and serve to paint a back-story not only for Straka, but also for Caldiera, the editor.  Jen and Eric's conversation in the margins helps to illuminate both the novel and the footnotes as they immerse themselves in the collective body of Straka's works, researching what they can about the author and the editor and sharing their findings in several passes through the book.  The reader can even tell the chronology of the margin notes based on the color of ink used by Jen and Eric.  First, blue and black, next green and orange, etc.

I found it impossible to put the book down, but unlike Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was unable to finish this in one sitting.  In fact, it took me 10 days to finish S.  Though it is not a particularly long book (at roughly 450 pages), it is a long read.  Each page spread took between 5 and 10 minutes to read, depending whether or not there were footnotes, and on the amount of margin notes.  It does not take long for the reader to become immersed in the mysteries around Straka, just as Jen and Eric have, and that makes the time and effort seem worthwhile.

I rarely write book reviews, and I tend to only do so when I find a concept creative and worth commending.  The last review I wrote was for David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas several years ago.  Like Cloud Atlas, S presents the reader with an imaginative and brilliant premise which involves versatile writing on the author's part.  Each piece of the book is so distinct: Straka's personality comes through in his novel, Caldiera's personality comes through in the footnotes, and Jen's personality comes through in her loopy cursive script and Eric's personality comes through in his neat and orderly handwriting.  As someone who takes a deep joy in writing, I cannot help but admire a work such as this one, imaginative, thoughtfully planned and versatilely written as it is.

I would highly recommend S to anybody who loves reading for the sake of reading, or writing for the sake of writing.  It will not disappoint.