J.J. Abrams, who is credited as the “creator” of S., is indeed that J.J. Abrams, best (and, up to this point, only) known for his work in the digital video media. Doug Dorst, who is credited as the author, is highly regarded for his short stories (THE SURF GURU) and the genre-bending ALIVE IN NECROPOLIS from a few years back. Familiarity with the work of either or both gentlemen will not prepare you for the experience of S.
S. is more than a book. It is a book, mind you; it comes in a slipcase that bears a paper seal with an enigmatic inscription that slowly becomes important as you read the book. The slipcase in turn is shrink-wrapped; I will confess that I had to struggle mightily with myself to defile the package by unwrapping it. The book inside is not S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst; it is rather a library-bound book titled SHIP OF THESEUS by V. M. Straka. It contains two stories, one of which is SHIP OF THESEUS proper (more on that in a moment) and the other of which is set forth in the margins and between the pages of the book literary. The notations in the margins document the correspondence between two university students, who may or may not be named Eric and Jen.
"One needs to take time and patience to get from the beginning to the end, but it is a work...that is designed to be read and experienced. I won’t hesitate to call it a literary toy for adults, and I use the word 'toy' in its best possible sense."
What is between the pages? All sorts of things: note pages, postcards, photos, napkins, letters, and, in the back, something that I believe is called an “Eotvos Wheel.” Now you know why this volume comes to you shrink-wrapped; it looks like my desk sneezed into it. All of the material included, from the margin notes to the detritus tucked inside to the paper seal, is important. Or maybe it isn’t. It is absolutely delightful to behold, more fun than you’ve had with a book since GRIFFIN & SABINE by Nick Bantock, though you certainly won’t confuse S. with that work in any way, shape or form.
So what of SHIP OF THESEUS proper? It is presented as a library copy of a volume --- right down to a Dewey decimal sticker and a back page full of “due date” stamps --- published in 1949. It purports to be the final work of the aforementioned Straka, an enigmatic author who shunned not only the limelight but also any light at all --- think J.D. Salinger without the outgoing personality --- and who was, by repute, a mysterious revolutionary known by his significant body of work and the even more significant weight of rumors that swirled about him during his lifetime. Straka, it is said, disappeared before he completed SHIP OF THESEUS; the final chapter was finished by the equally reclusive F.X. Caldeira, who was Straka’s longtime translator but in fact may have been Straka himself.
The story told within the book concerns a stranger in a constantly shifting city, one in which geometry is out of whack, who is kidnapped and taken aboard an equally bizarre ship with a horrendous crew. The journey works as a story --- I was reminded, for some reason, of the fever dream tone of Jack London’s THE STAR ROVER --- but, as the marginal notes demonstrate, it is more than a work of suspense; it is perhaps a coded parable as well. No one, however, is really sure, least of all the readers who survive until the end.
S. --- which is comprised of the totality of the book, the notes, the pseudo-detritus within, even the slipcover --- makes demands upon the reader. One needs to take time and patience to get from the beginning to the end, but it is a work --- a truly analog piece of work, inspired by an artist known for his digital creations --- that is designed to be read and experienced. I won’t hesitate to call it a literary toy for adults, and I use the word “toy” in its best possible sense. Anyone who has ever picked up a book to read should have S. on their bookshelf, just to experience it. First, however, you will have to remove the shrink wrap.
Please note: For the ultimate interactive experience, check out the eBook of S., which is being sold through Apple.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 1, 2013