"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen
I have an admitted weakness for puzzlebox stories. And for books that are beautiful objects. And also for metafiction. This book and I were meant to collide catastrophically. It was always going to be love.
If you're not familiar with S., it is the brainchild of J.J. Abrams, brought to fruition by novelist Doug Dorst, and the conceit is roughly this: There is a stolen library book from 1949, entitled Ship of Theseus by one V.M. Straka. Jen, an undergrad who works in the campus library, finds the book left behind with some penciled-in notes by its reader, a disgraced grad student named Eric. She reads the book and leaves her own notes before returning it, and the two soon begin a correspondence in the margins.
But of course with Abrams involved, it's nothing so very simple. It turns out that V.M. Straka is one of the most mysterious authors in history, whose true identity is unknown but who may be behind any number of murders, bombings, kidnappings, and other crimes. And the translator's bizarre footnotes seem to be written in a strange code. Who is Straka, and what is the secret society known only as The S.? Who is the translator, F.X. Caldeira, and what secret message is he trying to convey? Why are strange people suddenly following Eric and Jen? What, in short, the fuck is going on?
If you buy a copy of S., what you find in your hands is the stolen copy of Ship of Theseus, complete with library stampings and a Dewey Decimal label on its spine. Inside, on nearly every weathered page, you find Jen and Eric's notes, written over time in different-colored pens. And slipped between the pages, scraps of paper - newspaper clippings, postcards and old photographs, a codewheel, a map scrawled on a napkin. The verisimilitude of this thing is striking.
So you can read the novel itself, the bizarre and very ominous Ship of Theseus. And you can puzzle over Caldeira's strange and lying footnotes, trying to ferret out meaning. And you can follow Jen and Eric's correspondence, whether from page to page, or chronologically, following the changing pen colors. You can read this in any number of orders, in any number of ways. And you can fall as deeply into it as you care to go.
I read this over a period of two days whilst self-exiled to a hotel room with no screens, no phones, no distractions, opening the door only to occasionally accept room service, and doing nothing but experiencing this book. And I think that's a good way to do it.
Suffice to say I have a lot of thoughts about this thing. I scrawled (wait, let me count) 29 pages of random notes and theories, which I won't try to fully coalesce into a review. But the back of the slipcover calls this "Abrams and Dorst's love letter to the written word", which is I think the best way of summarizing this whole strange creation. It's about how how we interact with literature, how it changes us, and how it changes for us when we read it at different stages of our lives. How literature brings people together, whether generally in terms of reminding us of our shared humanity, or more specifically in the way individuals bond over their love of a particular book. How literature serves as message and messenger, how it answers our questions and asks us new ones. How it lives and breathes and changes, throughout ages and throughout lives. How it holds up a mirror to its readers, showing us facets of ourselves we needed to see, reflecting us in dimensions we hadn't yet been aware existed.
So it's fitting that I saw so many other stories reflected here - all of which I have loved to one degree or another: Metafictions like House of Leaves (and its forebear, Pale Fire), The Neverending Story, and Cloud Atlas. Puzzleboxes like The Crying of Lot 49 (the S. symbol is very reminiscent of the muted posthorn; and there are parallels to V. of course, too), Seven American Nights (a lot of Wolfe, really), VALIS, The Name of the Rose (and its feeble descendant, The Da Vinci Code), Myst, and Lost (of course). Other cult novels like Catcher in the Rye or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Absurdist works like Stanislaw Lem's novels and some of Vonnegut. And so many, many more. The kinds of books that draw you in, that nudge enticingly at your pattern-seeking monkey brain, saying, "figure me out".
But for all its mysteries and codes, its nested stories and lying narrators and varied psychoses, for all its wonderful eccentricities, at heart this is (what else?) a love story. Three love stories, really, which all echo each other beautifully throughout the levels of the narrative.
And a fourth one too, of course. A "love letter to the written word".
Eric: "It's extremely cool how the words can stay the same but their meaning can change."
Jen: "Because the reader changes."
Ship of Theseus text:
"All that ink, all that pigment, all that desperate action to preserve that which had been created - it is valuable because story is a fragile and ephemeral thing on its own, a thing that is easily effaced or disappeared or destroyed, and it is worth preserving. And if it can't be preserved, then it should be released and cycled.
"To write with the black stuff is to create and, at the same time to resurrect. We write with what those who've come before us wrote.
"Everything rewritten. Part o' the tradition."
Eric: "And we tell ourselves stories - about ourselves, but maybe also all these stories about other people, about characters - as a way to hide from how small we are."
Jen: "Maybe it's not hiding. Maybe they help us not be so small."