Over the last couple of weeks, I have slowly read through S., a weird, postmodern novel by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst*. It is essentially a brilliant idea, but executed with a splash too much sentimentality, a little too much sensationalism and a clear tiring of the concept on the part of the writer/s by the end. It is also, rather frustratingly, for me, a book about people who “love books” that absolutely lacks any real awareness of what a “love of literature” is. People who “love books” don’t love them because they’re full of secret codes and mysteries reflecting the real world that need to be unravelled, they love them because LITERATURE IS THE FUCKING GATEWAY TO THE SOUL. I’m getting ahead of myself.
S. exists on several layers. Layer one is the novel Ship of Theseus, written by a prolific, reclusive, left-wing novelist (Straka) in the 1940s, who may or may not have been involved in mass assassinations of “bad” people. Layer two is the footnotes of FXC, Straka’s translator who was (definitely, by the end, it is decided) in love with the writer she translated who she had never met. Layer three is the annotations of Eric and Jen, a failed doctoral candidate writing on Straka and a girl having a bit of a breakdown after a bad-breakup in the last year of her undergrad degree. They become friends through their notes in the book, eventually meet and “fall in love” and start trying to solve the mysteries of Straka’s life**. As they do so they begin to be chased by “mysterious, evil forces” who mirror the behaviour of the villains in Ship of Theseus and make them realise that the novel was actually a veiled confessional autobiography. They also find “codes” and things in the text, which is bullshit. Also, I couldn’t help imagining with their fawny loser-library love that they’re both really ugly. They’re definitely both really ugly. It isn’t said, but it didn’t have to be. They’re both lacking in cool in a way that I, as a knob, found repellent.
Oh, and the fourth layer is loads of things (postcards, napkins with notes on, letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, some kind of fucking spinning wheel to use to “decode” the “codes”***) stuffed in between the pages of the book. And this is quite cool. This multi-media approach (and, I believe, there are lots of fake websites created for it as well, but I haven’t looked at them) was novel, was interesting. And the concept of the book itself was too.
The idea of people bonding through a love of a particular book is quite sweet, but is pretty intrinsically saccharine, in my opinion. And the fact that the plot of the novel within the novel turned out to be a love story, too, left me feeling flat. I don’t want to read about people “finding” love. In fact, this one even treats unrequited love as appealing by talking about how great it is “just to love, man” or something. Urgh.
But this is making it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book. It is fun, that has to be said. And though Ship of Theseus is not well-written enough to even begin to feel like literary fiction from seventy years ago, the annotations and the stories around the annotations are quite strong, and I did get a good sense of these two “readers”, if you will. Particularly a sense of them both being really ugly.
S. is a fun book, but impractical to read on public transport or outside, because of all the extra pieces. It’s slightly too slow a read, with its annotations, for something as ultimately non-revelatory as this. It’s fun, but it’s not art. It’s a great idea, but the execution is mediocre at best.
If you think it sounds “cool” and that’s all you care about in a book, you’ll love it.
I mean, tbh, I liked it, even though I disapproved of its content intellectually.
* JJ Abrams, I believe, had the idea, then paid Doug Dorst to execute it. I think. Though as the whole piece is far more design than literary-orientated, the secondary credit should really go to whoever did that. Maybe it was Dorst?
** Many of these are not resolved. Abrams here thinking of sequels? I mean, I loved Lost, that’s the main reason why I read this. But I watched Lost when I was a teenager. I am not a teenager now. I am not the target demographic of JJ Abrams’ output. Which has not matured as I have…
*** Like fuck was I going to do that. I’ll read the fucking subtext of a book BECAUSE I’M A GROWN UP, but I’m not going to read the “codes”. If a book has a code in that I’m meant to understand as a reader, TELL ME IT. Ian Fleming would.