Book Review: “S.” (2013) by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams

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“Mum, I want to show you the novel I’m currently reading.”

I open S. at a random page and her eyes widen. The paper is artificially yellowed to make it look like it’s been sitting on a dusty library shelf for years, there are notes in different handwriting and ink colours scribbled all over the margins, and from between the sheets of paper a detailed map of a college campus drawn in sharpie on a coffee shop napkin falls out. My mother carefully takes it out of my hands and turns the page, revealing more handwritten notes and a letter written on a legal pad with a coffee stain.

“No way,” she breathes quietly.

Yes way.

S. was conceived by producer/director J.J. Abrams of Lost and Star Trek/Wars fame and written by Doug Dorst (a three-time Jeopardy winner – a fact which is, rather hilariously, listed on the cover). It is easily one of the most intriguing books to come out in the last couple of years and anyone who has ever flipped through a physical copy can immediately see why. Packaged in a slipcase, the book is a stunning bit of publishing with an overwhelming attention to detail. The work consists of two “levels” of narration: a novel by a fictional author, Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka (made to look like an old library book – including Dewey decimal sticker!), and a conversation between Jennifer and Eric, who start communicating through the notes in the margins and the objects they leave for each other in the book (postcards, newspaper articles, copies of telegrams, and so on).

Going through the book, the reader has to decide on a reading strategy: read Ship of Theseus first and then the marginalia, or read them side by side. I chose the latter option and would argue that it is perfectly doable as long as you give it your full attention while you read (no checking Facebook or Tumblr!). Whichever way you choose, we all become literary detectives, carefully examining each artifact like it is evidence submitted in a murder case. The ink colours tell us when the notes were written, the stains tell us that the writer was emotional and writing in a hurry… For 456 delicious pages, we get to play Sherlock Holmes and solve the puzzle S. has presented us with. In fact, the reading experience is similar to that of Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (2009), which tells one couple’s story through their possessions as listed in an auction catalogue.

In their marginalia, Jennifer and Eric start debating the identity of the mysterious author V.M. Straka and whether there are clues to be found in the translator’s cryptic footnotes. They exchange ideas, underline important lines, and as their search progresses, find themselves growing closer and closer. The Straka authorship question and the Ship of Theseus novel are all very well, but this is where the real story of S. lies: Jen and Eric navigating the risks of opening up to another person and contemplating when they trust each other enough to take a leap of faith. Their exchanges are genuinely touching and Doug Dorst has succeeded in giving them distinctive voices and personalities that the reader instantly latches on to.

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However, as much as I adore the concept of this book and the sheer ambition with which this project was taken on, it still falls short in that one vital aspect: the writing. Even though Jen and Eric are solid characters and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing their relationship grow, the main mystery was often difficult to follow and leaves a lot of questions unanswered (god damn it Abrams every damn time). The novel itself, Ship of Theseus, was obviously written to serve the purpose of the Jen-and-Eric narrative and consequently does not hold up well as a standalone work; its language can feel forced and without the context of the Straka mystery, the story itself would not be a satisfying read.

As an object, S. is so intriguing and designed with such passion that it is a shame that it was not executed by a better author. It’s good, but it should have been spectacular. The novel is not bad by any means and has a lot more to offer than just a quirky gimmick, but it could have been the greatest book in a long, long time, something truly game-changing. Even though I appreciate and admire it for what it is, it is still a massive missed opportunity and makes me mourn the work that might have been.

(And because I know you were all waiting for me to say it: House of Leaves did it better. There.)


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5 thoughts on “Book Review: “S.” (2013) by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams

  • December 7, 2014 at 6:42 am
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    Have you shown House of Leaves to your mothers? I’ve shown House of Leaves to people (and others have seen me reading it in public places) and the reactions were different and funny in all the cases

    Reply
  • December 7, 2014 at 7:37 am
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    I did show it to her, back when I was reading it for the first time, and her response was something along the lines of “how do you even read that? Can you read that? Is it still a book or more like a work of art?”

    Reply
  • December 7, 2014 at 1:50 pm
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    This has been on my tbr pile for about a year! I must get on with it!

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  • December 10, 2014 at 9:58 pm
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    I must admit, although S sounds interesting and enjoyable despite the faults you noted, I am totally sold on House of Leaves. Wow, I remember seeing it somewhere and thinking it looked cool, but this post reminded me of it and that I should really check it out. So thanks!

    Reply
  • September 7, 2015 at 5:11 am
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    I had read/played JC Hutchins’ groundbreaking work “Personal Effects: Dark Arts” (2009). When I first read about “S.”, I thought it would be a ripoff. I bought “S.” and discovered it was just a book with notes in the margin and stuff in the pages. It was still something not encountered before. I read it all at once. To truly experience it, I need to read “Ship of Thesus” by itself, then just Eric’s penciled-in notes, then the first round of Eric and Jen’s notes, and the second and the third.

    I agree with you, “House of Leaves” did it better.

    Reply

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