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Books, Culture

S. by Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams, A Review

SI just finished reading S. by Doug Dorst (from an idea conceived by J.J. Abrams). The premise of the book is that an author, V.M. Straka who was a prolific writer in first half of the 20th century, wrote a book called Ship of Theseus as his final book before his untimely death (or supposed death). A copy of the book, was taken from a high school library (the kids didn’t really get the book anyway) and then, because of an accident of leaving the book behind at a college library, the book gets passed back and forth between two students trying to solve riddles surrounding the mysterious author.

I first saw S. at a Sam’s Club. I always walk down the book aisle not looking for anything in particular. I probably wouldn’t have taken much notice accept this particular copy was out of the shrink wrap and the paper seal was broken so you could remove the book. That is what sold me on the book (though I didn’t buy it until months later at Barnes & Nobles.

The book carries the illusion very well. From the yellowed pages, smudged end pages, library stamps, and Dewy Decimal label on the spine, the book feels like an old school library book. There are really only two things that give away the illusion of the book. One is that, for an old school library book, the corners of the book are remarkably sharp, with no rounding of any kind. Also there is surprisingly poor use of the pages as far as text is concerned. The book is 457 pages long but if it wasn’t for the huge margins it could have easily been 250-275 pages. I know why it’s like that though, because of the huge amount of “notes” taken in the margins. The notes are very convincing. The ink changes colors frequently (because who has the same pen with them always) and the quality of the handwriting varies, significantly sometimes, as people’s handwriting does. The oldest of the notes are written in “pencil” and they are in differing levels of fading from the page. It made it more difficult to read but helped with the illusion.

Then in addition to the notes there is a large number of newspaper clippings, postcards, photos, personal letters, and even a campus map drawn on a coffee shop napkin. All of this helps add to the illusion and makes for an interesting experiment in fiction novels. It’s as though the story of the novel is really about the two people trading the book and the novel itself is the background. But it’s more than that. It reminds me of a video game I played years ago, Missing, that blurred the line between the real world and the game. They carried the illusion out far enough that if you go to Audible you can get the audio book of Ship of Theseus, the book that S. centers on and you can buy just it on audio. It even lists the author as V.M. Straka.


So at that level, the experiment that is this novel worked very well. Mr. Dorst also did an excellent job of mimicking the style of early 20th century, worker’s party, socialist authors. I read some in school and it feels the same (or at least the same as my memory of them). So that was also very successful. However I found the story of Eric and Jen (the note takers) somewhat less engaging. A lot of what they talked about seemed very trite and common ego centric, angst ridden worldview I see too much of in real people.   “My parents did blah blah blah so I’m wounded and offended,” type of silly immature crap. Add in some F-bombs, and a helping of “religion is dumb” and stir and that’s pretty much the interpersonal portion of the story. On top of that, some of the more interesting parts of the notes, “Who was Straka? Why are weird things happening?” never really pay off. There’s no resolution to them. I found that frustrating.

I did enjoy it though and would like to see this idea played out again. While I understand that blurring the lines between the real world and fiction can be troublesome for some people (I’m talking about you, Stanford Quidditch team), I enjoy the escape it provides.



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