Friday, February 28, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Today I will be talking about the recent collaboration between J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst known as S. It is more or less a story within a story as two people read a book together, passing it back and forth while writing in the margins and blank space. What we have as readers is not only the fake book they are reading together, but also the notes they write to each other within its pages, and also other little letters, postcards, maps, and articles that they collect along the way. And yes, it is as awesome as it sounds.

The Situation: Undergraduate literature major Jen finds V.M. Straka's Ship of Theseus left behind in the Pollard State University library where she works. Written on the title page of the book are instructions of where to leave it if it is found, which she does, along with a note to the owner saying she even read a few chapters and hoped to get her own copy so she could finish. The owner, later revealed as Eric, writes a note back to Jen saying she could go ahead and finish it and just leave it in the same place when it is done. Once Jen finishes the book, and actually makes many more notes within the margins of most of the pages, she and Eric continue passing the book back and forth, corresponding on the pages of Ship of Theseus. It is certainly an unlikely way to begin a friendship with someone, but their shared interest in all things Straka keep it going.

But that is just the story that is going on in the margins. The top picture in this post is what S. looks like when it it first obtained from the bookseller of your choice. The second picture is what V.M. Straka's Ship of Theseus looks like once it is removed from the cover for S. It is a real (but fake) book, and Eric and Jen's story plays out in the margins. But Ship of Theseus is a 10-chapter mystery novel that follows a man, known only as S, as he attempts to find out who he has and what his purpose is. As chapter one begins, S. is soaking wet and finds himself wondering aimlessly until he finds himself in a bar. He doesn't know who he is, where he is, or why he is soaked. Apparently Ship of Theseus was V.M. Straka's last novel before his mysterious death, and it isn't even clear which parts of the 10th and final chapter were written by him, or filled in by his translator, F.X. Caldeira.

The Problem: Turns out it may not be such a great idea for Jen to get involved with Eric, and doing any sort of collaboration with him regarding his work on Straka would be even worse. Eric is a disgraced former PhD student who isn't even allowed on the Pollard campus. He was working on his dissertation where he was going to attempt to find out the real identity of the mysterious V.M. Straka. Apparently there have been many theories over time but no one has ever quite nailed the guy down. And instead of helping him, Eric's advisor, Professor Moody, sold Eric out and took what he had learned concerning Straka and was going to put it in his own book, all while getting Eric expelled in the process. Now it seems like Moody and his other graduate student, Ilsa, have realized that there is a connection between Eric and Jen, so they have started asking her questions. It also doesn't help that Ilsa is Jen's TA for one of her classes, and basically has the power to fail her, and this is supposed to be Jen's last semester before she graduates. Both Eric and Jen turn out to be more than capable of finding their own answers to the Straka question. But can they do it while also attempting to cultivate this new relationship, and keep Moody and Ilsa from figuring out what they're up to? Also, will Jen be able to graduate? Will Eric ever get back into Pollard (does he want to)? And can they keep Moody from publishing the book with information he took from Eric, or at least maybe publish their own before he gets a chance?

But again, this isn't the only story we're dealing with. There is also S, who not only doesn't know who he is, but also ends up being shanghaied and taken aboard a mysterious ship. If that wasn't horrifying enough, it seems the ships entire crew, with the exception of one man, has had their mouths sewn shut with black thread, and they only communicate by whistling. It eventually becomes clear that S. is not on this ship to be a regular sailor, and while he will eventually get off of the ship, it won't be the last time he sees it and experiences its ghoulish crew. In between rides on this ship, he finds himself in the middle of a rebellion, being chased down by authorities, searching for a mysterious woman he met at the bar before he was shanghaied, and even being given the task of carrying out several assassinations. As strange as it is to say, S. not knowing who he is becomes the least of his worries. 

And I suppose I could say there is a third story here, and it is the one of the relationship between Straka and his translator, Caldeira. The deeper Eric and Jen dig, the more clues they find within Ship of Theseus that Caldeira was seemingly leaving for someone else, possibly Straka himself, despite the fact that he was dead when the book was published. This only further lends to the mystery surrounding Straka's identity, and gives Eric and Jen more information to investigate and bond over. What they find out greatly helps their research, but also makes what they are doing all the more dangerous as there are people who would love to take that information from them and use it for their own personal gain.

Genre, Themes, History: Both stories, or I guess all three stories, could be categorized as mysteries, or a least suspense/thriller. And Eric and Jen's story could even be classified as a romance since, despite them only communicating in the beginning via passing an old book back and forth, they each manage to gain romantic feelings for the other. But what first bonded them is their love for the mystery in Ship of Theseus regarding S. and his journey, and also Straka and his identity and all of the clues that are contained within the book they are reading and rereading together. Once they begin finding clues that actually make sense and give them answers, they each continue to comb through the novel, writing their own thoughts and discoveries within the margins. Yeah, it's all very meta. And at times, extremely confusing. I usually become extremely annoyed when a book has footnotes. Something about having to pause in the middle of the page in order to read an outside note that the author or translator wanted to include, for whatever reason, just bugs me. And while Ship of Theseus does have its own footnotes that were included by Caldeira that the reader has to pause for, there are also the myriad of handwritten notes that are the ongoing conversation between Eric and Jen. At first, the cursive handwriting in blue ink is Jen, and the script in black ink is Eric. Oh, and the script in pencil is also 16 year-old Eric who stole the book from the Laguna Verde High School Library. But eventually, the blue and black is joined by orange and green, which eventually is joined yet again by purple and red. And at some point, and I could not tell you where, Jen begins writing in black ink too, while Eric also goes back to black ink, but this seems to happen after everything is over and done with and all conflict has ended, but I couldn't tell you that for sure. In short, there is a reason I added this book to the doorstop category, even though it is less than 500 pages. And all three stories seem to center around identity: who you are, what you're capable of doing, and how you choose to live your life. 

But wait, there's more. Throughout the book, tucked away within its pages, are postcards, maps, articles, old documents, and longer letters from both Eric and Jen for stories they want to tell the other that won't fit within the margins of a book. Yeah, it's crazy impressive. And also, this book makes for good evidence in the case for physical books. I can't imagine that S. will ever have a Kindle version available to download from Amazon. So much would be lost in translation.

My Verdict: This book has been described as a love letter to the written word, and I absolutely see that. This is a book for book lovers. It isn't easy to read, and in fact, if I were a literature professor, I would make that soul-killing recommendation that this book be read more than once in order to really "get it." Maybe read it once just as Ship of Theseus, then go back through it and read Eric and Jen's notes. But I'm not a literature professor, so I won't make that recommendation, but trying to read everything by going through the book only once is certainly exhausting, but still worth it. Eric and Jen's story is entertaining enough all on its own, but then we also have Ship of Theseus, which is a great story in its own right. And both are made all the better with the story of the mysterious Straka, and Eric and Jen's attempts to find answers. Would I have liked either story if it stood on its own? Hard to say, especially since I read everything all at once, but I think it is fair to say I would have stilled enjoyed both, although maybe not as much. Also, the actual Ship of Theseus even smells like an old library book, and the pages are even slightly yellow. Brilliant!

Favorite Moment: This isn't so much a moment as it was one of the many little treasures that is tucked away in the pages of Ship of Theseus. Among the letters and postcards and articles is a map of the Pollard State University campus drawn by Eric on a napkin taken from a campus coffeehouse. It simply lays out where everything is in campus, and shows how a student who isn't even legally supposed to be on campus is able to get into the library everyday without being noticed. 

Favorite Character: While I like both Eric and Jen just fine, I think I will have to go with Eric. Maybe it is the fact that he is a little bit older and wiser and a bit more grounded than Jen. Sure, he has his issues too, but he encourages her to not get in over her head with all the Straka stuff, and to focus on her school work so she can graduate. He makes it clear that he doesn't want her doing anything stupid that could ruin her academic career.

Recommended Reading: As soon as I read the Translator's Note and Foreword by Caldeira, I could not help but think of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire. The foreword is written by the fictional Charles Kinbote, as the author of Pale Fire, the fictional John Shade, was killed before the poem could be published. Following the poem is an extensive index, much longer than the actual poem, which is 999 lines, written by Kinbote explaining certain aspects of the poem. Problem is the index doesn't so much explain Shade's poem as it just tells the story of Kinbote's life and his affiliation with Shade. It is another book that deals with the questions surrounding an author's identity and his relationship with the author of the foreword, filled with hidden clues and meaning, and it would take one reader an entire lifetime to uncover absolutely everything Nabokov put in there. And it is another book that literature professors, along with the fictional Kinbote, love to recommend that we poor lit majors and book lovers attempt to read more than once, no matter how much of our sanity that may cost us. 

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