a) Love reading books.
b) You thought the thumbnail that accompanies this review looked pretty.
c) You’re a giant, evil, robotic overlord who intends to learn more about human emotions by reading books, thereby becoming a better and more loving person, whose heart will swell three times its size, and you’ll reconsider ruining Christmas . . . or something.
Whichever one of the previous three options you picked, you’re in for a bit of a shock when it comes to reading this particular book I’m reviewing. The book in question is S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, the former of Lost, Alias, and Super 8 fame, the latter of . . . umm . . . writing books and stuff fame (more specifically Alive in the Necropolis and The Surf Guru).
To say that this book is like nothing you’ve ever read or experienced is in no way hyperbole, and it’s safe to say that (barring any other Dorst/Abrams collaborations), you won’t be reading anything quite like this book in the near future. The book itself is not so much a book, as it is a hard, black, cardboard cover for another book, Ship of Theseus. So, yeah, S. itself is just a fancy piece of really stiff paper. The book it contains, though, is the real story. Actually, make that stories, since the book contains at least four different, yet interlacing and interweaving narratives.
The book’s story (Ship of Theseus, that is) is about an amnesiac who is press ganged into serving on a ship, aiding its monstrous crew, and embarking on a perilous journey. This bit is more or less pretty straightforward. The fun, however, starts when you begin reading the little handwritten notes in the book’s margins (Ship is meant to be a book that’s been stolen from a library). The authors of these footnotes (and headnotes, and sidenotes, and every-bloody-where-notes) are Jennifer and Eric, a college senior and a disgraced grad student, and the way they communicate with one another is by writing their thoughts in the margins, and then leaving the book on the library’s bookshelf for the other to find. As you might have guessed it, a relationship develops between the two (the nature of which I’m not going to give away), their notes and commentaries often straying from the actual book, to their own thoughts and lives. Besides these three story lines (amnesiac, Jennifer, Eric), there’s also the matter of the book’s author, the reclusive, and mysterious political agitator, V.M. Straka, and his translator F.X. Caldeira. The story here is who is who (whom? whose? who’s? Doctor Who? Whatever).
Is Straka actually Caldeira (or vice versa), and what exactly is the message he’s trying to send by writing this book. In a way, S. is kinda like an episode of Lost for the book-reading public (fair warning, I’ve never actually seen Lost, but I hear it’s confusing as hell).
Speaking of Lost, many of Abrams‘ works are obliquely referenced in the book, right down to the book itself which is a “lost object”, just like Cloverfield’s “found footage”. Okay, enough geeking out. On to the review.
The first thing that I found when reading this book, is that I was hooked instantly. There was little to no “acquaintance period” with this book, like some other novels I’ve read. Simply put, whether you’re going to love or hate this book, you’re going to know inside of four pages and five minutes. The story (and all its constituent parts) is deeply engaging, and I’d advise anyone reading this book to set aside enough time for a lengthy read. The most beautiful thing that the book does is that it makes you actually care about its characters, by treating them like real people. They’re not literary archetypes (although, I’m sure you could classify them into the archetypal storytelling scheme, if you really feel like it), and they feel like people you might just bump into on the street, complete with doubts, flashes of humour, hang-ups, and insecurities.
Another thing I liked about the book is that it reminded me strongly of those old, ’90s point-and-click video games (think, Myst, in book form). You’re actually another character in this story, and you play the role of someone who just happened to pick up the book at the library where the two main characters have been leaving it for one another to find. Aside from the many, almost obsessive footnotes and sidenotes, scribbled throughout the book’s pages, there’s a perplexingly plentiful plethora of puzzling paraphernalia, including handwritten letters (actually handwritten, and not one of those sickening “handwriting” fonts), campus newsletters, old photographs, telegrams, and even a map that’s been drawn on coffeehouse napkin (which, to the jubilation of my inner nerd, is an actual napkin). All these little elements bring new angles to the story in the book, as well as the story of the book. Figuring out how the story, author, and the various items inserted inside the book all tie together, well, that’s where you come in. It’s actually a genius premise, since it allows you to delve as deeply into the book as you want. Want to read only the book’s actual story? Sure thing. Want to spend your time reading Eric and Jennifer’s notes? You go right ahead. Want to become completely obsessed about finding the minutest detail about absolutely everyone in the story? You can do that, as well (although, don’t expect to see your friends or significant other anytime soon if you do).
Another aspect of the book that impressed me was its nearly flawless execution. The odds and ends in the book actually look and feel their real life counterparts. Even the book itself looks like it’s been filched off a library rack, and the illusion goes right down to the library reference sticker on its spine, and even down to the book’s slightly musty, old book smell (seriously, how did they even do that?). The beauty of a book that’s so complex is that not only is it immensely re-readable, but it’s actually necessary to re-read it, in order to get as much context out of the story as possible. If this were a video game, it’s replay value would be through the roof.
Finally, something that really impressed me was the fact that, despite the danger of the book slipping into gimmicky territory, it manages to remain genuine. Although the story’s premise is by no means something you’d expect to happen in real life, it never feels contrived. For a book this complex, with a story that could fall into gimmick-dom, the book maintains its balance and poise with admirable aplomb.
In all honesty, I would like nothing better than to say that the book is flawless, and that I couldn’t find anything wrong with it, but I did, and I have to remain impartial (my impartiality is over 9000! – and if you get that reference, then congratulations: your childhood was as sad and geeky as mine).
All in all, I have to warn prospective readers that this isn’t an easy book to read. It will take you some time, probably more than you’d expected, or more than you’re willing to spend. It’s kinda like Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s also unlike Ulysses, in that you can’t brag to your friends for having understood every aspect of the story.
Finally, one last gripe of mine that’s probably somewhat unfounded, is that all the items tucked away in the book’s pages are relevant to the pages where they were inserted, and to those pages only. So what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing much, except for the fact that there’s no way to know which letter or photograph belongs to which page. That means that if you don’t take precautions to put everything back exactly where you found it, you could end up holding a map or letter in your hand, with no idea where to put it back into the part of the book where’s it’s actually relevant. Then again, if you’re OCD enough to try and decode all the riddles and puzzles that the book throws at you, you’re probably more than ready, willing, and able to organize and sort all the ephemera in the book, down to the last diner menu.
The Verdict – 9.0 (Amazing)
– Amazing production value.
– Deeply engaging premise, and near flawless execution.
– Lets you play around with how much of the story you’re willing to explore.
– Manages to tell an honest story, despite it’s fantastic premise.
– Extremely re-readable (it’ll keep you busy for many, many hours).
– Could be a little too complex for some people (e.g., people who don’t feel like doing homework in their spare time.)
– Props are easy to misplace if you’re not vigilant.
– Some of the book’s coincidences seem a little too coincidental to be plausible (then again . . . it’s J.J. Abrams, so there’s that).