S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

In brief: A multi-layered book experience – there’s the novel, the margin notes between two students and the inserts. All add up to a mystery…

The good: It’s incredibly intricate and engages on so many levels. There are websites and Twitter accounts to continue the journey.

The not-so-good: Is this mystery solved? How do you read it? What happened? There are so many questions posed and not all of them are answered.

Why I chose it: Saw a video about it and was intrigued (received as a Christmas present)

Year: 2013

Pages: 456

Publisher: Canongate

Setting: The World

My rating: 9.5 out of 10

S. looks somewhat plain on the bookshop shelves – a black cardboard box hiding a brownish-grey hardcover entitled Ship of Theseus. Nothing particularly exciting until you notice that there’s a library shelving sticker on the spine…what? You know that your reputable bookseller isn’t in the habit of selling old library books. So what is this thing? J.J. Abrams is the guy who wrote Lost (and Felicity)
and Doug Dorst – he must be a writer. So why is Ship of Theseus written by one V.M. Straka?

It’s all a mystery and you haven’t even dared to slit the sticker holding the book in the box. Opening Ship of Theseus, your first thought is of musty, old books – this book looks and feels as if it’s been hiding in the corner of library archives or on a low shelf in the dusty corner of a used bookstore…the white pages have brown edging, splotches…and hey! Somebody’s written ALL OVER this book. Actually, two somebodies – a curly cursive (gotta be a girl) and an all-capitals printers (definitely an angry young man). What just fell out of the pages? Postcards…a napkin with some sort of map…an ancient newspaper article…and is this a compass or some cipher-cracker?

Welcome to the world of V.M. Straka, who may or may not exist. Welcome to the life of Jen (final undergrad year of literature) and Eric (who doesn’t really exist if you ask the university). Welcome to the world of S. – the new, old, fictional and factual. This is love, this is rage against the machine, this is a mystery…S. can be so many things. It’s not just a book, it’s an all-consuming story that will have you pondering, thinking, searching and calculating while you read it.

The first question on opening S. is, how on earth do I read this? You see, there’s several parts to the book – the story, Ship of Theseus (with footnotes); the notes between Jen and Eric – but each set of colours represents a different time in their lives. Blue and black comes first, followed by orange and green and finally purple and maroon. Do you read the story first, then the notes in chronological order? I ended up reading the whole thing, as some of what Eric and Jen discuss is related to the story on those pages. It made for slow reading (at times you’re reading the page four times) and a need to keep track of everything, but I’d recommend this if you’re planning to read the book in a fairly short time period (e.g. over a holiday break). Occasionally you will get a spoiler for something that’s coming up, but I didn’t think it made a difference. (For example, does the exact point when Eric goes overseas matter?) Reading the margin notes between the pair is also helpful when you get to a page that has an insert – such as a cryptic postcard from Eric or a card from a mysterious lady. If you have time, I think you would get even more out of the story by reading Eric and Jen’s notes to each other.

You’re probably wondering why two people are writing notes to each other in a book. Don’t they own phones? Jen probably does, but Eric is rather cagey about leaving footprints. He’s in a bit of trouble, so writing to each other in an old book and leaving it in the library stacks is the most technological he’s going to be. At first, he finds this undergraduate writing in his book somewhat annoying, but he opens up to Jen as she becomes an accomplice in one of the great literary mysteries – who is Straka? Does he exist? Is he one man? A woman? Or a group? Why does Ship of Theseus have footnotes, often incorrect and strange, from a translator? Does the book contain something more?

Oh, and we have the actual novel of Ship of Theseus. This is a book that flaunts the kind of work that teachers love to get students to analyse in English Literature. There’s enough symbolism, themes, allusions and reflections on human nature to write years of essays. Why do the sailors on the ship do what they do? (I’m not giving this one away). What does the war between factions represent? Why is it significant that S. has lost his memory? Is the title, Ship of Theseus, a comment on modern society? Unlike most of the books I read for Lit, it’s not painful to read. Why? Maybe because I’m getting older, not writing an essay on it or it’s actually interesting to read about the trials of S.

You can talk and think about this for hours and hours and still not come to any definite conclusions. Likewise, the mystery that Eric and Jen are trying to solve doesn’t come to any nice, happy ever after conclusion. Things aren’t solved and put in neat little packages. I think this is probably deliberate to get people talking and start to use other media, such as the internet. A quick Google search finds that Eric and Jen both have their own Twitter accounts (@EricHusch and @JenTheUndergrad respectively). There is also a website, whoisstraka.com, which doesn’t say much…yet. Fan sites and forum discussions are already increasing. Was this the aim? Probably. I can see this book also making a good television series!

Rather than just a book, this is entertainment that draws together an old pleasure (reading) with the instant connectivity and discussion of the internet. I’ll be waiting to see if we do find out answers to the unanswered questions in the following months.

10 thoughts on “S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Add yours

  1. hmm, sounds way too complicated and required too much commitment for my part! Though 9.5/10 rating, I’ll need to take this into some serious consideration 🙂

    1. Thanks Jo – it was a great book. I’ll be interested to see how the remaining mysteries are solved (if at all). There are some very dedicated readers out there doing a LOT of research into the book.

I enjoy reading your comments! Thanks for stopping by.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: