S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

What do you get when you cross an ambitious Hollywood director with an award-winning novelist and three-time Jeopardy champion? In this case, you get “S.” a collaboration between J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Lost) and Doug Dorst (Alive in Necropolis, The Surf Guru), who together have written and produced a book that is unlike anything I have encountered.

At the core of S. is a physical book called Ship of Theseus, written by an enigmatic author named V. M. Straka, and published in 1949. All of this is false, of course, but everything about the book looks and feels as though it were an actual library book from 60 years ago, complete with library stamps and a Dewey Decimal number. This particular copy, however, has been rather heavily annotated by two students of Pollard State University (another fictional institution), each of whom has their own interest in the book, and who enter into an on-going dialogue, via notes in the margins, about themselves, Ship of Theseus, and various mysteries associated with it.

On top of this, the book is filled with a collection of inserts – everything from letters, postcards, and photographs, to photocopies of documents, a code wheel, and even a hand-drawn map on a paper napkin. The production quality of this book is simply mind-blowing, both in terms of the handwritten marginalia, as well as all the inserts, each of which seems remarkably authentic (the napkin with the map on it really is a paper napkin!). All of this material provides an entryway into the world of Straka, a world which to some extent overlaps with our own, and which, as far as anyone yet knows, has no bottom.

Ship of Theseus itself is a rather surreal, somewhat Kafkaesque novel about an unnamed individual who has lost his memory, and quickly finds himself immersed in a fantastic and horrific world full of war, revolt, and assassination. Although that makes it sound pulpy or sensationalist, if anything the text leans more in the direction of literary introspection, and is at least partly concerned with the role of the artist in a world of capitalism and commerce.

The most direct allusion is, of course, to an ancient Greek paradox, known as the Ship of Theseus paradox. If a ship, as it decays, is gradually repaired, such that each component is replaced as it wears out, can it still be said to be the same ship, once all components have been replaced? Is identity a fixed, immutable essence that can withstand gradual change, or do new parts in a similar configuration constitute a different vessel? The same question obviously applies to our own lives, as our thoughts and circumstances change, indeed as our very cells die off and are remade. These are the kinds of questions that S. explores.

On top of this, there is a separate story line that transpires in the margins, as the two readers learn about each other’s lives, with possible but uncertain connections to the world of Straka. In particular, they set out to resolve the question of who was Straka, author of this and 18 other books, a notoriously mysterious figure who had been variously accused of murder, kidnapping, intrigue, and agitation, and who seems to have died in rather suspicious circumstances a few years before this book was published.

The novel itself is filled with clues and ciphers. The two readers manage to successfully decipher much of it, and develop a somewhat convincing explanation for certain questions. Their explanation, however is not entirely convincing, and many threads are left hanging. One can’t help but think that although these two guides have uncovered some of the complexity of this work, there is much more to be discovered.

Not surprisingly, the world of S. extends onto the internet and beyond. There are several intriguing twitter accounts, some apparently “official” blogs (which were presumably created by the team behind the book), and ongoing modifications to Wikipedia (which is itself, of course, perpetually in flux). Beyond the web, however, there have already been discoveries in the “real” world. Images have been found which have clearly been modified to produce some of the inserts, and perhaps offer additional clues. One particularly intrepid blogger has even made a trip to the New York Public Library, and has unearthed what may be a treasure trove of material. Fear not, however, any of you who think you have arrived too late. There are still plenty of puzzles to be solved and clues to be unearthed and deciphered!

Personally, I have always loved the experience of buying an old used book and finding a handwritten note inside. Sometimes it’s just a name and a date, but occasionally you find a surprisingly long letter or dedication. Often it’s clear that the book really meant something to the giver, even if it turned out not to for the recipient. S. is based on a similar idea, but takes it to the extreme, and beyond.

Simply put, I haven’t been this addicted to a book in a long time. Although somewhat bizarre, and occasionally awkward, the story of Ship of Theseus is compelling in and of itself, and all the more so once you fall into the habit of thinking that every page, every sentence, every word, might contain a clue. All of this is complicated and enlivened, however, by the ongoing dialogue between the two readers. Their story is in many ways much more commonplace, dealing largely with the fears and possibilities that inevitably arise around the time of graduating from college, and yet it too has several layers of intrigue.

These mysteries have already spawned several blogs and a community of people that have formed around exploring these questions, seeking out additional material, and probing the question of literary influence. It’s still a small community, but growing steadily, with new material being unearthed all the time.

As for the two characters who wrote all the notes in the margins, they now seem to be continuing their conversation via Twitter…

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