Monday, February 3, 2014


      Okay, so the rundown is as follows: S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst is a very good book. set/art thing. It's similar in device to House of Leaves or Griffin and Sabine, though much more accessible and a little more straightforward and less mind-screwy than either of those. The story unfolds through a book called Ship of Theseus by the enigmatic author V.M. Straka, the footnotes and translation of his work by the equally enigmatic F.X. Caldera, and the margin notes of Jen and Eric, two people at the fictitious university known as PSU who communicate by passing the book back and forth after Jen finds Eric's copy in the university library's archives. 

                The good bit is that this is an engaging book with a lot of layers and some things open to interpretation. The small level of interactivity definitely helps with immersion, and the story that unfolds through the various texts are interesting enough to keep one engaged.

                   However, I cannot recommend the book due to the papers and notes and pictures stuffed between its pages (which make it hard to borrow, get out of a library, find used, or even read some passages whilst sitting in the wrong position), and the fact that the pages get incredibly busy in places, which does not allow the individual elements of the story to breathe. Also, the text of the fictional book, Ship of Theseus, kind of drags in places and is overshadowed by the real story. If you really think you'll like it, then chances are you may. If you're on the fence, I'd give this one a pass. You'll miss a good story, but since it's pretty much buy or nothing, it's only for those who are absolutely sure. 

More, as always, below.

    "What begins at the water shall end there. And what ends there shall once more begin."

"...But maybe she just needs to believe that."
-Eric Husch       

           I'd like to start off this review by talking a little about the ergodic literature genre. It's not a genre that gets a lot of play, especially in the mainstream. Ergodic literature is defined as "literature that requires nontrivial effort to traverse the pages". In short, it's works that aren't as straightforward. Works that do things like use three different typefaces, or conceal their stories behind multiple layers of text and nested footnotes. Some works put a single black page in the middle of their work. Some authors write entire works so that apart from the beginning and the end, their book can be read in any way. Invisible Monsters even has a reissue where, if you follow one section, it becomes a commentary on itself, a sort of "hidden track". Sometimes, these puzzles can be fun. Sometimes, they can be distracting from the work. But most of the time, it's interesting just to figure out what they are.

                      Because of the nature of the works, this isn't a genre that has found much acceptance in the mainstream. Of the many authors who have tried it, I can only think of three who have written books that entirely fit the format and made it into the public consciousness as a whole: Vladimir Nabokov, whose book Pale Fire definitely applies as it is a series of scholarly footnotes made to a nine hundred ninety-nine epic poem; Mark Z. Danielewski, who still has yet to write a straightforward book and who has crafted one of the finer examples of the genre with his magnum opus House of Leaves; and Jorge Luis Borges, an author who concealed just as much behind the style he wrote as he did in the actual story, and was quite enamored with labyrinths. S. does not reach the lofty heights of such books, hell, it doesn't even reach the weird emotional highs of Nick Bantock's Griffin and Sabine. But S. has two things going for it: First, it's more accessible, and second, it's a lot of fun to read.

                      S. presents itself as a stolen copy of the book Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka. It even has a library label on the spine, though it kind of destroys the illusion of being stolen from a high school when it uses the dewey decimal code for "American Fiction-- Collections and History", which the book is most certainly not*. Inside this stolen copy of Ship of Theseus, the first thing that becomes apparent is that there are notes written on almost every margin by two people, one a man and one a young woman. The young woman, Jen, found the book in the library archives where she works. Writing in the book and leaving it where she found it gets her in touch with the book's owner, Eric. The two of them start communicating through the book, getting to know each other and offering their own theories on Straka. Straka is an enigmatic man, and both his true identity and history are somewhat up for debate. Theseus was Straka's last novel, and arguably the most disputed work, and tells the story of a man of ambiguous identity who finds himself on a strange ship with a monstrous crew. And at first, it seems like an odd little literary mystery.


                  Except you're not getting this story in parts. The margin notes, written in several different colors, tell you the story out of chronological order. Sometimes even sharing Eric and Jen's thoughts at points later in the book much earlier in the story, allowing you to piece together context in any order you see fit. This makes moments in the story a lot more wrenching, or sometimes just upsetting as the two of them start out investigating the mystery and get more cynical and frightened of the implications as things go on. And then there are the notes, and the footnotes written in code, and the code wheel at the back of the book. Someone starts underlining threatening passages in a few of the passes (which is probably why they change colored inks throughout the book). Details are revealed about important characters. Eric and Jen's lives are slowly consumed with the Straka mystery**. And they may not survive to see their questions answered.

                   I suppose both the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of S. are in the presentation. The book has been artificially aged so that it looks like it's supposed to, it's packaged in a creepy-looking slipcase, and the only thing that tells you that the book isn't as it says it is are the weirdly-disconcerting way the ink doesn't bleed through the pages, nor do the pen marks leave any impression the way they would in a real book. The notes and pictures and postcards stuffed between the pages also help with the immersion factor that's broken by the text being printed on to the page, though again, there's a bit of an immersion break based on where things are placed between the pages and why.

                     This also brings up the two biggest problems with the book. First, the little notes and papers and maps all tend to fall out of the pages and don't always get replaced at the points they need to be. This also makes it very difficult to lend the book out, making it more like a boxed set or an art piece that you can't really give to other people. It also explains why there's been no rush by libraries to get themselves copies of the book, as one of the papers being out of place or lost would obscure sections of the story for those who try to read it later. Second, every page of the book is very busy. It's easy to get lost in each page, which is both a strength and a weakness of S. Sometimes I found myself following the footnotes but not reading much of the page. Others, I found I'd read the text of the book without any of the footnotes or margin notes. Some pages just kind of made me shut down and coast through them because they were so busy or didn't have any notes. 

                  But when S. gets its immersion right, it gets it very much right. There are few books that require audience participation and a commitment to its weird premise, but among them, S. certainly gets it right. It's interesting to see the mystery unfold page after page, to see if you can reach the conclusions before the duo, to use the code wheel in the back of the book to decode the messages mysterious translator F.X. Caldeira leaves for Straka in the footnotes of the book. It kind of reminded me a little of the puzzle books people used to read, though a lot less pretentious, and not as obscure. Even if you don't follow along with every single code, Eric and Jen are puzzling through them and the information is still conveyed. Also, the back-and-forth nature of the footnotes helps to preserve some tension in a premise that could easily be without much tension at all, as knowing future events helps to make the conclusions and the things the two readers blindly walk into have that much more impact.

                Also, Doug Dorst, who wrote the book (Apparently JJ Abrams "conceived" the project, whatever that means in particular) has a wonderful sense of voice. He also does quite a balancing act considering he wrote the text of the novel, all the footnotes, and four sets of notes and dialogue for Eric and Jen and anyone who left them notes in the book***. Despite this, nothing really blurs together, and all of it is very clear right up to the ending. While the details outside Ship of Theseus itself are kind of sparse, the way the characters talk and the actions they allude to make the book that much easier to understand. The supplemental materials are also pretty well-written, a series of articles and newspapers and postcards and personal accounts that shed light on certain details within the other narratives. My one regret is that my copy of the book had these inserts at the wrong places, specifically a school newspaper that should have been placed much earlier was placed almost a chapter after the events it illustrated. 

                   The only other quibble I have with S. is that the central story in the book is kind of dull. Yes, it allows for a jumping off point for everything that comes after, but the issue is, the book should be as interesting as the readers find it. And I found the story of Eric, Jen, and their various enemies and colleagues a lot more interesting than the strange surrealist story of the man on the ship. And while the book informs the more interesting elements, it just doesn't compare to the rest of anything going on. 

                   But these qualms should not dissuade anyone from the work. It's an interesting story, and part of the fun is finding one's way through the mess to find their own meanings and answers to all the various questions the work poses. I can't recommend S., however, because there's really no way to borrow it or take it out of the library, and I can't in good faith ask anyone to pay thirty bucks for a weird hardcover/box set/art piece that they may read every once in a while, or get frustrated with and put down. It's a good book, but it's only for those who'd think they'd want it, if that makes sense. 

I don't know. I like getting lost in Straka's words and the stories surrounding them. Maybe you will, too. 


Hell's Horizon by Darren Shan

- Nocturnal by Scott Sigler
- City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte
- The Thin Executioner by Darren Shan

*Okay, I know, most people wouldn't be looking for this. But the kind of people who will really dig this book? They'd know. Or at least Google. 

** Jen's is. I think Eric's arc is more about someone learning not to be consumed.

***I still think JJ had to have written part of it. This sounds like a lot, even for a good writer.

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