I remember someone showing me the link to JJ Abrams' newest project sometime last summer. It looked weird, and creepy, and dark. It looked just like this:
As it turns out, Abrams was making a book. Note that I do not say "writing." Abrams has not written a book. Instead, he conceptualized a book, and hired a guy to do the writing for him. You know, kind of like his experience with running a TV show but not writing every episode. His name is, however, paramount to this book. The actual writer of the book is named Doug Dorst (who?), but the guts of the thing seem to belong to Abrams. It's called S. Terrible title. Intriguing book.
So allow me to explain. The book itself—the objet, if you will—is presented shrink-wrapped and ensleeved. The sleeve is the only place you will find evidence of Abrams’ or Dorst’s names. When you open it, it is an old, battered library copy of V.M. Straka's novel "Ship of Theseus." The book is sturdy, with an embossed cover reminiscent of the '50s. The production values are fab-u-lous, but I think perhaps JJ Abrams hates librarians, because...The reason the book is shrink-wrapped is that it is stuffed chock full of ephemera (paper collectibles only meant to last for a short amount of time), including postcards, photos, even a map of underground tunnels drawn on a cafe napkin. Don't drop it; it might explode.
When you crack the book itself, you'll note that Ship of Theseus has unusually large margins. Don't worry though; there is no wasted space. Intrepid students have filled it with marginalia! And herein lies the narrative difficulty of S: three separate plotlines/mysteries/stories.
1) Ship of Theseus: Reclusive writer V.M. Straka's novel about a press-ganged amnesiac caught up in political revolutions he can't understand. The book trailer above is really about Ship of Theseus. It's a complex, highly metaphorical novel that is both deeply weird and deeply cool. I would love to take an English class on Straka. Too bad he's fictional.
2) But who is V. M. Straka? It's apparently a debate reminiscent of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, with all kinds of people--living and dead--as possibilities for writing Straka's books. Why was he so secretive? Was he a revolutionary? A committee? A murderer? Or even—gasp—a woman? (My favorite option is the young girl who is channeling a 15th-century nun or some such. Delightful!) This issue is laid out in Ship of Theseus' preface/forward and continues in the footnotes.
3) Then we engage on a meta-literary level. A disgraced grad student’s textual notes are found by a restless undergrad, who writes a note back. The conversation between Eric and Jen takes place in notes and drawings in the margins of Ship of Theseus, as we watch their relationship unfold as we turn the pages. It’s a bit like Nick Bantok’s Griffin and Sabine, but significantly darker.
After a great deal of experimentation, and some whole-hearted cursing as things fell out of book pages, I will share with you, O Gentle Readers, my method for reading this labyrinthine narration. I realize that my giving you this outline seems pedantic, and for that I apologize, but this really was a trial-and-error thing that took me a while to figure out, and so I offer my suggestion to save you the same headache. Take it or ignore it at your pleasure.
First, use Post-It Notes to mark the pages where the ephemera lives. As there is usually a connection between the postcard (or whatever) and the marginalia on that particular page, you'll want to keep the pieces close by. It's terribly difficult to read the book with all the bits falling out, however, so Post-It Note 'em. ‘Page 200: map on coffee shop napkin,’ for example. Secondly, read the Ship of Theseus chapter first. The whole chapter. Include the footnotes, but not the marginalia dealing with the footnotes. If you try to do it all at once, be-bopping back and forth between book text and marginalia and ephemera will give you a headache, and you'll never remember the plotline of the chapter. Each chapter is deeply weird in its own right, and semi-detached in plot, so it's not difficult to bite-size the experience in this way. Thirdly, return to the beginning of the chapter and read the marginalia, complete with whatever postcard, letter, or photograph you've Post-It Noted. You'll have to re-read bits of the chapter, and definitely the footnotes, but you'll have a framework from which to hang all your suppositions. Feel free to stop your reading between chapters, but for the love of all that's holy, don't stop reading between reading "Ship of Theseus" and the marginalia. That way lies madness.
Especially as regards to the authorship controversy, consider taking a few notes, or even making a table of characters. There is a small circle of “possibilities” for Straka’s real identity, and since they’re only discussed piecemeal in footnotes and the marginal comments, there is not a lot of background information to help keep the names straight. Eventually I had to go back and take notes because I was missing things.
A number of reviews have warned that the writing—especially the Straka base text—is the weakest component of the narrative structure here. While the production values are far superior to every other aspect of the book (just by virtue of their awesomeness), the novel is not badly written. It is written deliberately in a manner to ape a dense, 1950s-ish literary style. The Straka is not supposed to remind the reader of a Ludlum thriller; it’s supposed to be a literary work of serious merit published after the Second World War. It’s slow and deliberate and metaphorical. The marginalia is quick and bite-sized and immediately arresting; of course it’s more engaging. But Dorst’s take on Straka is pretty well-written.
Of course, since this project is the brainchild of JJ Abrams (does that make him a brainfather?), weirdness abounds. There are hidden codes, academic backstabbing, actual backstabbing, a secret society or two, unrequited love, and obsessive book-fans. The biggest positive with the project is that it’s helmed by Abrams. It’s twisty and weird and dark and fun and have I mentioned how AMAZING the production values are? Unfortunately, the biggest problem with the project is also that it’s helmed by Abrams. He’s great at build-up, but not so hot at payoffs. (Did you see the end of Lost? I didn’t. I got bored.) The book has a bit of that, too. This book ends with more of a fizzle than a bang, but the ride is fun.
In a similar vein, I'm looking forward to reading Marisha Pessl's Night Film, which is supposed to be equally dark and weird and meta-, although not with quite as much ephemera attached... Then I discovered that Pessl wrote Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which I loved loved loved. So I’m very excited to get my hands on it. It’s up next, once I’m done reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 for Book Club. Post to follow, as it is incroyable!