“S.”, J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. “Ship of Theseus” what.


It’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with “V. M. Straka”, a person or persona created by a group of radical authors to publish novels condemning the actions of the cruel elite. Straka, to the extent that he (?) exists, submits a manuscripts for his final work, Ship of Theseus (SOT), to his regular translator, “FXC”. Unfortunately he gets killed and pages are missing. Unperturbed, FXC translates and publishes the work – complete with a generous array of footnotes.

A grad student at Pollard State University is studying SOT as he researches the truth about the author Straka. The book, complete with his margin notes, is found by another student, Jen, who works in the library. They begin passing the novel back and forth, never meeting, but corresponding through marginalia: both commenting on the story and the person of Straka, as well as sharing details of themselves and their lives.

It is this final repository that I, the only non-fictional party in this entire chain, came across: S.. The creation of J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, S. is a story within a story: a single physical book, putatively written by Straka, but complemented by the commentary of Jen and Erik as they muse over the story’s meanings and get to know each other. In addition, the book contains many inserts: letters exchanged between our two correspondents, postcards, epistles, napkins, photographs. It is about as rich as a novel can be before it becomes corporeal performance art.

a photo of a page from the book showing the margin notes and a postcard included

Pages from “Ship of Theseus”. Note the marginal communication between Jen and Eric, and the lovely postcard from Brazil!

This is enough reason to make S. worth reading. As new media come into existence, and old media are transformed and experimented with, S. is an intrepid novelistic experiment that expands the typical conceptions of what it means to author a story. In the same way that Picasso’s three-dimensional ‘paintings’ challenged conceptions, this multi-dimension book confounds the traditional boundaries of the novel and blazes new trails in storytelling. If you’re the sort of person who has ever used the phrase “the novel form per se“, or even just the phrase “per se“, then you’ll get something out of this.

Ship of Theseus is also quite a good read. Remember, this the novel written by Straka that Eric and Jen use to correspond. It is about an amnesiac who, I’m sorry, is also called S., who is shanghaied for the titular Ship of Theseus (which, philosophy students will be glad to know, is constantly changing, while remaining the same). He is rather the instrument of fate, and fate ends up equipping him and compelling him to methodically traverse the world, poisoning the Agents of the heartless military-industrial complex of one Vévoda, a weapons magnate. In his travels he encounters a mysterious woman, Sola, whom he yearns for.

Ship of Theseus stands on its own two feet, even without all the margin nonsense. It is engaging and moving, with a fantastic style I found reminiscent of García Márquez. It also had lots of interesting words, which I didn’t look up so much this time, but you could if that’s your flavour.

En fait, I found the story of Eric and Jen to be the least effective of all. This could be because I read impatiently and didn’t get all the subtleties or richness. S. might be like Venice, and if you really want to enjoy it, you have to be willing to get lost and find yourself in some awful-smelling places marauded by pigeons. In my case, I thankfully wasn’t set upon by the so-called rats of the skies, and I rather enjoyed the street foods and the Guggenheim museum (to continue the metaphor far beyond its usefulness.)

Still though, it’s a nice story, if you haven’t read Catcher in the Rye and stories about twenty-somethings coming to terms with their identity and their place in the world still strike you as original and compelling. Eric is a wannabe academic with daddy issues trying to make a name for himself in the face of rejection from his former professor. Jen is soon to graduate but, newly single, feels alienation from her friends, her parents, and her previous way of life. What do you know, they fall in love.

Anyway, it is actually a profound and lovely work in a way broader than I can do justice to. As I try to explain it in writing I am swamped and overwhelmed by its sheer breadth and genius – there are stories and substories contained in S. that I can’t fathom how to include. It is an alternate-reality novel, and that’s a pretty cool thing, and it’s at least one great story to boot.



One Response to ““S.”, J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. “Ship of Theseus” what.”

  1. Interesting. I’ll have to look into this more. I remember when the trailer for the book came out and everyone tried to figure out what it was. That was a fun time.

    Good review!

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