How To Read J.J. Abrams’ “S.”

Earlier this month I wrote something about S., the new project announced by J.J. Abrams in October that turned out to be a novel (written with Doug Dorst).  S. is a truly unique book in that it’s the novel, Ship of Theseus, written by a V.M. Straka – a fictitious novel, with an equally fictitious writer.

The book, originally owned by Eric, a university graduate student was temporarily misplaced, and found by Jen, an undergrad student working at the university library – readers will learn all of these by reading notes written by Jen and Eric to each other on the book’s margins.  The whole book is not only filled with Eric and Jen’s notes to each other, notes on the text, author, etc., it’s also filled with newspaper clippings, postcards, letters, and other miscellany.

S. is really 3 stories in one – the story of the novel, Ship of Theseus, the story behind the writer, V.M. Straka, the life stories of Eric, and Jen, and all their notes and inserts make for an impressive, if not overwhelming, reading experience.

The Novel

The novel, Ship of Theseus, (1949) written by V.M. Straka and translated by F.X. Caldeira is strange tale of a man who does not know who he is and where he is from.  The novel opens with the man walking in an unknown city, with an unknown purpose.  While in the unknown city, he meets a mysterious woman in a pub before being accosted by another unknown man and taken abroad a nameless ship with a nightmarish crew. The man later learns that he is called S., and his strange voyage on the nameless ship was just the beginning of a bizarre journey where he will be forced to undertake dangerous missions which could cost him his life.

He knows nothing of his past life and his present purpose in life, but the one thing he does know is that he needs to find the mysterious woman from the pub.  He feels that she is the link to his past and the one person who would know who he really was.

His strange adventure takes him to unknown lands, taking up with rebels and disgruntled union members, saving priceless works of art and literature, and later assassinating members of a powerful group whose sole purpose is to assassinate the equally mysterious group he is forced to be a member of.  In all the strange places he finds himself, he sees her, the mysterious woman he has been looking for, known only as Sola.

As S. performs the tasks he is assigned, he discovers that he is part of something bigger, something beyond his control, and by playing his part, he is changing the world.

S. sails on a nameless ship that always gets destroyed and rebuilt with different mismatched parts.  S.’s original memories are constantly being replaced by new experiences.  The Ship of Theseus paradox asks, if a ship was destroyed and rebuilt with different parts, is it still considered the same ship?  And if a man forgets his past lives a new life, he is considered the same man?

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The Author

The author of the Ship of Theseus is V.M. Straka, a mysterious writer who no one has ever seen or spoken to personally.  He is a prolific writer who has made powerful enemies through his radical writing. V.M. Straka’s real identity is unknown and conspiracy buffs, Straka scholars, government officials, and pro or anti Straka organizations have all theorized on who he really is.  Some believe that V.M. Straka is a pseudonym created by some well established writers in order to voice out their anti-establishment opinions.  Others believe that Straka is not one man, but a group of people, or an organization determined to take down the government. Other outlandish theories about his real identity include a young factory worker, a fictional pirate and the spirit of a medieval nun speaking through a young British girl.  Straka’s life, and death are shrouded in mystery, and besides writing controversial novels, he has been accused of numerous crimes such as murder, espionage, and single-handedly starting World War I.

Almost as mysterious as V.M. Straka is his translator, F.X. Caldeira, who translated all his novels from various languages to English and claims to be the only one who really knew him.  Though having working with Straka for years, F.X. Caldeira claims that he also has never met Straka and only correspond with him through letters. Straka scholars are equally intrigued with F.X. Caldeira and theories about his identity abound.  Some believe that he is a hack, while others believe that F.X. Caldeira and V.M. Straka are the same person.

The Readers

The book, Ship of Theseus is the property of Eric, a former Literature Graduate student at Pollard State University who has spent his entire academic life studying V.M. Straka and his body of work.  Sometime in the course of his research at the PSU Library, he accidentally leaves his copy of Ship of Theseus on a shelf, where it is found by Literature undergraduate Jen, who works at the library.  She reads the novel, writes analytic notes on its margin and personal notes to Eric before returning it to his workroom in the library.  Intrigued by her views on the novel, Eric leaves the book again and encourages her to share her views on the novel, which prompts Jen to write more of her ideas.

The entire book is full of notes written by Eric and Jen, first about the novel and the author – the true identity and purpose of S., V.M. Straka, and F.X. Caldeira.  They share their ideas and beliefs on the author’s and translator’s relationship and on the true purpose of the novel.  By analyzing the text, they discover strange codes  for secret messages hidden in the translator’s footnotes.  Though most of Eric and Jen’s notes are about Straka and the novel, they often use random lines in the text to initiate conversations about their personal lives. Little by little, the margins of the book are not only filled with their ideas on V.M. Straka’s life and identity, but also with their lives and true identities as they reveal their  own stories to each other.

As Jen helps Eric on his quest to find answers about V.M. Straka, their research leads them to some disturbing facts, not only about Straka and Caldeira, but also about the academe.  They quickly learn that by being involved in Straka’s world, like S. in the novel, they may have accidentally stumbled on to something that could cost them their lives.

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How to Read the Novel

As a whole, S., with its text, notes, and inserts can be quite  overwhelming.  There are so many things going on on every page that it’s hard to focus on any one thing. I tried different ways to read the novel before sticking to one that works for me. Based on my experience, these are the different ways to read the novel:

1.  Read everything all at once – For the first chapter I read everything that was on the page, starting with the text of Ship of Theseus and accompanying footnotes, then the notes written by Jen and Eric.  I would also read whatever document was inserted between the pages.

With this method, I found it hard to focus on anything.  With Eric and Jen’s voices in my head, I found it hard to focus on Ship of Theseus and couldn’t really follow what was going on – in the novel and in Eric and Jen’s correspondence.  Reading the book this way is like watching a movie on DVD with the Director’s commentary on.

2.  Read the entire chapter first then go back and read the notes – Chapter 2, I read the whole chapter first, then returned to the beginning of the chapter to read all of Eric’s and Jen’s comments (and whatever inserts were included).  This method let me focus more on the story of the novel, then later let me focus on the story of Jen and Eric.  The only thing I didn’t like about this method was what I had to re-read some passages underlined by Eric and Jen to be able to remind myself what they were commenting on.

3.  Read the entire novel first, then go back to the beginning and read all the notes and inserts – I tried #2 until chapter 5, before I decided that the story of Ship of Theseus was actually interesting enough to finish before tackling Jen and Eric’s lives.  With this method, you might have to re-read certain passages again in order to put Jen’s and Eric’s comments in context.

How to Read Eric’s and Jen’s Notes:

From the start, readers will notice the difference between Eric’s and Jen’s penmanship  and the color of pens being used.  Their notes were written at different times and different phases of their relationship and can be identified by the color of pens used:

1.  Dark blue ink (Jen); black ink (Eric) – this is used during the first phase of their relationship when they were just getting to know each other and when they were more interested in analyzing the text of Ship of Theseus and breaking codes.

2. Red (Jen); green (Eric) – these were used during the 2nd phase of their relationship when they have known each other better and have delved deeper into the text and Straka’s life.  There are more personal information about themselves written in these colors.

3.  Purple (Jen);  red (Eric) – These were used when Jen’s and Eric’s relationship became more intimate and their research on Straka more in-depth.  Notes in these colors are mostly about their personal troubles, present dangers and results of their research on Straka and Caldeira.

4.  Black (Jen); black (Eric) – This is the last color used by Jen and Eric.

To prevent yourself from reading spoilers, try reading the paired colors notes in order.  Finish all the dark blue and black notes first, then go back to the start of the novel and read all the red and green notes til the end of the book.   Go back to the beginning and read the purple and red notes til the end; and finally, repeat the whole process looking for the black notes written by Eric and Jen.

An extra note on the scribbles in the margin:  Even if you follow the paired pen colors, Eric and Jen don’t talk about the events in their lives in chronological order, which could sometimes be very confusing.

I’m a stickler for order, so that was how I read the novel.  Again, every reader is different and there is no right and wrong way to read the novel.  In the end, it all depends on which story you want to focus on or on how you want to take the story in.

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I was really excited about the concept of this novel.  I thought that reading all the notes and inserts would be fun, but, to be honest, it became a bit annoying after a while.  Though Ship of Theseus is an entire novel in itself, I don’t feel that it can really stand on its own.  I found the story confusing with no real plot or conclusion.  For me it’s really just a stage to set up the story of Jen, Eric, Straka and Caldeira, but in the end, even that was not as intriguing as I had hoped it would be.

Though the story of the Ship of Theseus / Eric and Jen was not outstanding, S. is still an amazing and unique creation – a book that anyone who loves “real” books should have on his/her shelf.  All in all, I give this book an A for effort.

***

S.(2013) – J.J. Abrams / Doug Dorst

Mullholand Books / Little, Brown; 456 pages

Personal rating:  3/5

12 thoughts on “How To Read J.J. Abrams’ “S.”

  1. How did I miss this post! I wish I had read it when I was trying to tackle S. I was the first person to check it out of the library! Like you, I was so excited for the concept of it. Maybe my expectations were too high (LOST fanatic) but I didn’t love it. Or like it much really. I tried method 1 and all of the info was too overwhelming for me. Like picture-in-picture tv x 10. Also, the notes btw Jen and Eric get more interesting, but for me they started rather dull and banal. (I think you’d find more interesting notes passed in any high school class. Haha.) I had to force myself to keep reading. I think I would have gotten more out of it if I had persisted like you and read the Theseus story then went back to the notes. But that story dragged a bit for me.

    I still give Abrams and Dorst high marks for the concept and for trying. I would give another book like this a try. But at the end of the day, a book has to be about the writing. I’m starting to feel that Abrams has lost sight of that. I was so eager for Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness, but both felt like they were committee written projects. Back with Alias and LOST the writing was very good.

  2. Thank you for such a great blog post that helped to ease my tired mind! I read the book first after trying to conquer the entire page. I just finished and felt quite let down because I really was ready for the end, some answers, anything! I felt that it was all so extremely well done and beautifully presented that it had to have a great ending. Happy to see that I am not just too tired to have missed something!

  3. Is it worth it? 3-stars doesn’t convince me (but this is pretty high for you, hehe). I can buy two new books with its local retail price. I’m interested in such books lately (Tree of Codes, Building Stories, etc.).

    • Not really. I gave it a 3 for it’s physical appearance and effort to make it look genuine. The story of the book is a mystery and pretty intriguing. The book itself is pretty cool because of all the inserts, etc. and that’s really what you’re paying for.

      • Hmm, I’m not quite sure how to answer that. But if it works, I wouldn’t mind the gimmick. Also, I haven’t read Foer yet, maybe I must read his other “normal” books first.

        Okay, I think I’ll get a copy of S. It’s available daw in NBS and Fully Booked.

  4. Pingback: Review: S | Bookzilla

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