The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Monday, January 27, 2014

S, or The Ship of Theseus, or "that weird book JJ Abrams made"

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!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Busy as a Bee

A clock-making crime heir named Spork.  A one-toothed, glass-eyed attack pug.  A martial-artist octogenarian spy.  Oh, and the end of the world.  By mechanical bees. 
Welcome to the world of Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker.  It’s the first book for my new book club, and I was crazy excited to hear what everyone thought about it.  If someone didn’t like the book, I was considering revoking their Book Club pass.  Thankfully, I had another glass of wine and re-thought my objections.  Especially since no one else finished reading it.  (wah waah)

Just to get the Ripley's Believe It Or Not moment out of the way, let me mention that Harkaway is the son of renowned spy novelist John Le Carré.  And Angelmaker is, above all, an old-fashioned spy novel.  Most reviewers of the book had a field day with this fact, as if they needed the gravitas of Le Carré’s name to give them permission to like Harkaway’s distinctly different book: “It’s OK that I like the madcap, slapdash prose of Harkaway because his dad is John Le Carré.  It’s just like Le Carré with ninjas!”  I think, Gentle Readers, that it’s a load of crap.  Harkaway is fabulous all on his own.  He’s not being reductive, or silly, and no one need apologize for liking his books.  

The most remarkable thing about Harkaway's connection with his father is how the literary son has written a cracking good spy novel without mimicking or lampooning his father’s work.  Le Carré's writing is laconic and his George Smiley is smart and calculating.  Harkaway's verbiage is joyful and ridiculous, over the top and fun.  His Joe Spork is hapless but clever, and a bit of a smartass. Harkaway is coming at the spy novel with a post-modernist, Dickens-meets-Monty-Python sense of fun.   While Harkaway's voluble silliness can edge over into wit for wit's sake, there remains a true sense of heart to the narrative.  There is always a recognition of things in the balance, of the possibility of loss.

Not everyone in the book club was as enamored of Harkaway's prose style as I was.  They found it overdone, even twee.  And I can understand that.  It can be a bit much.  But I found that if you give yourself up to it--ride the wave of it, so to speak--it's really quite delightful.

There is a really sexy train (and its equally sexy submarine sibling).  There are clockwork bees.  There is a fascination with gears and the harnessing of unusual power sources.  There is the preference of handmade over the mass-produced.  But this book is not steampunk.  It is tempting to call it such, but it has as much to do with steampunk as Cirque de Soleil has to do with Ringling Bros.  There is a surface connection, but that’s where it ends.  The Guardian review calls Angelmaker’s genre “arts-and-crafts picaresque,” which is pretty spot-on.
Joe’s father is the legendary Mathew Spork, gangster king of the underworld.  Lest you begin picturing scenes of Godfatherish mayhem, however, please keep in mind that Mathew Spork is more the kind of man to hijack an expensive truckload of hideous golf socks from Scotland than engage in bloody gunplay.  Angelmaker has a sense of nostalgia for crime of a sort where banks and robbed and jewels disappear, but no bystanders are injured and criminals have an unbreakable code of behavior: “good, wholesome, old-fashioned British crime.” This novel is more about the joy that comes with naughty rule-breaking than the anarchy that comes with law-breaking.

Upon Mathew's death, however, Joe has forsaken the life of a gangster’s heir for the quiet regularity of clock repair with his grandfather.  Things are fine, but dull.  As much as this is a spy novel, it is also a somewhat belated bildungsroman.  Joe is thirty-something, but has yet to find his own way in the world.  In the midst of this vague dissatisfaction, Joe is asked to repair a mechanical beehive.

This beehive is actually a device built by the brightest scientific mind of the 20th century, a mechanism which causes a state of absolute truth to occur.  This sounds great, in theory.  But Harkaway's version of total truth leads to a conundrum: if you can see to the heart of things, you can begin to map out where each decision would take you, and how others would react to each decision.  Absolute clarity destroys the magic of "what comes next."  In effect, humanity becomes a sequence of clockwork people, with no soul, no deviation, and no free will.  Apparently, little white lies make the world go 'round.  (read: fiction!)  So this golden beehive, which should lead to the eradication of war, instead eradicates that which makes humans, human.  Why does the doomsday device look like a golden clockwork beehive?  Apian trauma from Harkaway's childhood?  Hard to say, Gentle Readers.  Hard to say. 
Regardless, the device (known as the Apprehension Engine) must be stopped!  And Joe Spork must stop playing by society's rules and begin writing his own. Joe comes to the realization that hiding from his past will make him unable to save the future.  And so he pulls on his gangster boots and kicks some ass.  

And the ass-kicking is glorious!  In the words of Glen Weldon's Slate review of the book, "...we aren’t merely empathizing with Joe Spork’s plight but feeling it keenly. When sinister officials grind Joe up in the gears of the State, his pain is our pain...And when he finally gets pushed far enough to fight back, we find ourselves looking around the subway car for someone, anyone, to high-five."  There is a visceral joy to reading about Joe's recognition of who he is and who he must become to fight the evil that is pushing to world to the brink.  I did not look for someone to high-five, but I did cheer out loud at my book.  The dog sleeping at my feet did not approve.

In order to save the world and humanity as we know it, Joe joins forces with the coolest badass lawyer ever to walk the face of the earth, a saucy love interest with highly specific sexual appetites, a secret society of undertakers known as the Waiting Men, and Edie Bannister, intrepid superspy turned pensioner.  They’re being hounded by hooded monks with a hive mind, a serial killer, agents of the nastiest underbelly of the British government, and a villain that can only be described as Bondian.  I kept expecting Shem Shem Tsien to cackle, “No, Mr. Bond.  I expect you to die.”

And I, Gentle Readers? I expect you to read.  This book is a roller coaster.  Strap in and enjoy!