By J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
Entering the world of a novel can be an experience like opening a gift, and that’s a conceit that works especially well with S. This is a generous book, whose contents literally spill out from between its pages as though falling from an upended Christmas stocking. Break the seal on the shrink-wrapped slipcase and you find that the volume inside — which is designed to look like an old library book, complete with due-date stamps and age-stained pages — is packed with colourful bonus features including postcards, pages of handwritten notes, photocopies of important documents, maps drawn on restaurant napkins, and even a kind of spinning de-coder ring called an Eotvos Wheel.
There’s no denying it’s a striking production, and it comes with interesting credits: “conceived by” the popcorn-film producer J. J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst, an author who also has the fact that he’s a three-time Jeopardy! champ on his C.V.
But unpacking S. involves more than just admiring the design work that went into it. To start with the inner layer and work out, the old book in the slipcase is a copy of the 1949 English translation of Ship of Theseus, a Kafkaesque, paranoid, and totally imaginary dream-fantasy written by a mysterious early-twentieth century author named V. M. Straka. Indeed, Straka is so mysterious that no one knows who he was or even if he ever really existed. Then there is the figure, almost as mysterious as Straka himself, of his translator, F. X. Caldeira (those double initials were all the rage back in the day). Muddying the waters of the text further are the idiosyncratic, opinionated footnotes Caldeira has written, a number of which don’t seem to make much sense until they’ve been de-crypted by keys provided elsewhere.
So Ship of Theseus is a book within a book. But outside of Ship of Theseus is what amounts to yet another book, because almost every page is densely annotated with marginal notes provided by Eric and Jennifer, a pair of students at Pollard State University who are both retro-analog types: people of the book, creatures of the library stacks. They share an intellectual and physical passion for the smell and feel of obscure old volumes like Ship of Theseus and their romance blossoms as they dig deeper into the text. The progress of their relationship is documented through progressive stages of marginalia rendered in different colours of ink, going from gray, to blue/black, to orange/green, to purple/red, and finally back to black again.
But there’s more. The story of Eric and Jennifer has a further connection to that of the mysterious V. M. Straka because the secret anarchist society Straka belonged to, known only as “S,” is possibly still in operation, with its agents appearing among the faculty and student body at Pollard State.
One could go on (and on) describing these wheels within wheels, but S. is a puzzle book that has to be experienced, and experienced the old-fashioned way. You can buy S. as an audio book and and an e-book, but it’s hard to understand why you would want to since you wouldn’t be getting anything like the full effect. Yes, it’s a gimmick and a novelty item, but it’s also a celebration of the book as a material artifact in all its tactile, serendipitous glory.
Of course the concept of a book written in layers, discussing itself, is nothing new. Mark Z. Danielewski is perhaps the best known among many contemporary metafictionists. And truth be told the marginalia here can be overwhelming and the love story a bit sugary and self-dramatizing (as campus puppy-love often is). But in terms of production and design, and as sheer entertainment, S. succeeds marvellously: its pages opening onto the labyrinth of a literary brain teaser musty with hip nostalgia.
To today’s digital natives it might all seem terribly primitive and unfashionable, but for anyone who grew up in a library, among those stacks and shelves full of undisovered countries, S. is a timely reminder of the romance of the book.
Review first published in the Toronto Star December 22, 2013.