Early 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, which is a fictitious novel written by V. M. Straka, who is a fictitious writer.
The book, which is originally owned by Eric, who is a university graduate student, was temporarily misplaced and found by Jen, who is an undergrad student working at the university library. Readers will learn these details by reading the notes that Jen and Eric wrote to each other on the book’s margins. The entire book is filled not only with Eric and Jen’s notes to each other about the text, author, and so on but also newspaper clippings, postcards, letters, and other miscellany.
S. is really three stories in one: the story of the novel Ship of Theseus, the story behind the writer V. M. Straka, and the life stories of Eric and Jen and all their notes and inserts, which make for an impressive, if not overwhelming, reading experience.
The novel Ship of Theseus (1949), which was 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 is just the beginning of a bizarre journey where he will be forced to undertake dangerous missions that could cost him his life.
He knows nothing of his past life and his present purpose, but the one thing he knows 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 the mysterious woman he has been looking for, who is 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?
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 several well-established writers to voice 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. Although having worked with Straka for years, F. X. Caldeira claims to have never met Straka and only corresponds with him through letters. Straka scholars are equally intrigued by 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 book Ship of Theseus is the property of Eric, a former literature graduate student at Pollard State University who spent his entire academic life studying V. M. Straka and his body of work. 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 and 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’s 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 filled not only with their ideas on V. M. Straka’s life and identity but also their lives and real identities as they reveal their 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.
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 worked 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 the 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’s 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’s 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. For Chapter 2, I read the entire 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 on the story of the novel first then later on the story of Jen and Eric. The only thing I didn’t like about this method is what I had to reread some passages underlined by Eric and/or Jen 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 technique #2 until chapter 5 before deciding that the story of Ship of Theseus is actually interesting enough to finish before tackling Jen’s and Eric’s lives. With this method, you might have to reread certain passages 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 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) and black ink (Eric) – This combination is used during the first phase of Jen’s and Eric’s relationship, when they were just getting to know each other and were more interested in analyzing the text of Ship of Theseus and breaking codes than learning about the other’s life.
2. Red (Jen) and green (Eric) – These colors were used during the second phase of their relationship, when they knew each other better and delved deeper into the text and Straka’s life. There are increased personal information about themselves written in these colors.
3. Purple (Jen) and red (Eric) – These colors 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 the results of their research on Straka and Caldeira.
4. Black (Jen) and black (Eric) – This combination is the last one 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 until the end of the book. Next, go back to the beginning and read the purple and red notes until the end. Finally, repeat the entire process with 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 can 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 how you want to take the story in.
I was really excited about the concept of this novel. I thought that reading all the notes and inserts would be fun, but honestly, 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 the stage for the story of Jen, Eric, Straka, and Caldeira. However, in the end, even that angle was not as intriguing as I hoped it would be.
Although 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. Overall, 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