S. might very well be the most meta novel ever written, being a book about a book while also itself being the very book that it’s about. To simplify, S. is the story of a pair of university students–one undergrad, one grad–who are poring over the contents of Ship of Theseus, the last novel of a famously cryptic author who ostensibly died in the 1950s, V. M. Straka, whose very identity has never been confirmed. The two of them “meet” when the younger, female undergrad, Jennifer, finds the older, male grad student, Eric’s, copy of the novel and returns it to him by writing a note on the front page. He responds with his own note, leaving the book where she first found it, and she responds in kind, the two gradually undertaking in a project together to investigate the book and author, scrawling notes in the margins about their research. As it goes on, they start to strike up a true friendship that might even lead to something more romantic in nature, even though for the majority of their work together, the only place they meet is in the pages of Straka’s novel.
While that concept alone might indeed sound meta, it is so much more meta than that, and that all has to do with the very form of the book itself. Because while reading, we aren’t holding a book entitled S. in our hands. In fact, the title, S., and the names of S‘s authors, J. J. Abrams (yes, that J. J. Abrams) and Doug Dorst only appear on the outer slipcase. The book within is actually Ship of Theseus, the only authorship given being V. M. Straka. Practically nowhere in the actual book (except in very small print on the final page) is there any indication that this wasn’t actually a novel published in the 1950s, and furthermore, the book actually looks, feels, and even smells as if it is that old. The book’s pages look yellowed with age and some even betray a bit of water damage, the cover style and font is very much in the style of that era of publishing, and if you put your nose to the pages, you can smell the musty aroma of an old library book. There is even a library sticker on the bottom of the spine, complete with Dewey Decimal System cataloguing.
Within the book itself is not only the text of Ship of Theseus but all of Eric and Jennifer’s back-and-forth notes scrawled on the sides–sometimes they’ve just written a quick note here and there, and sometimes a page is practically covered with writing. And the print job is so good that they actually look like real notes written by real human hands with real pens. And to make things even more complicated, from a reading standpoint, Eric and Jen have both gone over the book multiple times, and so the notes are sometimes out of order (there are even penciled notes that Eric wrote when he was 16). As you read along, you can eventually discern at which point in their relationship any particular note is from based on the colors of the pens used. Oh, and there are also things stuffed inside the book, including fake newspaper clippings, photos, postcards, longer notes Eric or Jen have written one another that they couldn’t fit in the margins, and at one point, a folded-up napkin with a handwritten map on it, all of which are meant to further enhance the illusion that we are reading the book, notes, and unfolding relationship of an actual couple.
And what might be the most remarkable thing about the entire project is that it works on every level. Speaking purely aesthetically, as a physical work of art, it is probably the most beautifully, lovingly, impressively designed book I’ve ever held in my hands. And then there is Ship of Theseus, which is by itself a fascinating novel, a dizzying work of dreampunk if ever I did read one, about a man without a memory who refers to himself as “S.” and who eventually finds himself kidnapped and forced onto an impossible ghost ship filled with sailors whose mouths are sewn shut, and on which time seems to run differently than on land. All he knows about himself are quick flashes of memory. Others indicate to him that he is either part of a revolutionary group out to fight an evil millionaire (possibly billionaire) known as Vevoda who is the dark power behind countless corrupt governments, or that he actually was one of Vevoda’s spies.
All he knows for sure is that he fell in love with a woman named Sola seemingly at first sight moments before being taken to the ship…unless she was actually from his past, unremembered life after all…and that fate seems to be conspiring to keep them apart no matter how hard he tries to get to the truth about himself, them, and this nightmare ship. The entire novel is written in third-person present tense, and while the narrator is omniscient at times, most of the novel is set in S.’s limited POV. From start to finish, it is deliberately hazy, fragmented, and atmospheric, as if the author is capturing a meandering fever dream on paper–reminiscent of both Poe and Pynchon.
But that is only the first layer to S., the novel. The second is Filomena X. Caldeira. Straka, you see, didn’t originally write his books in English. They were instead translated by the mysterious Filomena, who it seems was also desperately in love with him, feelings that seem to have been reciprocal. Straka, however, being part of a revolutionary group–significantly called “The S,”–and in perpetual danger from an evil megalomaniac, Bouchard (on whom Vevoda was based), was constantly on the run and didn’t see how they could ever have a life together, and so he and Filomena communicated through code. He would embed messages to her in his manuscripts, and she would write back to him through coded annotations in the published books, making them a clear parallel to the third, arguably most important layer of the book: Eric and Jen.
And what is most remarkable about Eric and Jen’s notes are that, while on the one hand, they work as a pitch-perfect parody of English literature academics, examining a text, and reading their own interpretations and nuances into practically every line (there is also some definite, pointed satire on the Shakespeare authorship debate here), on the other hand, they also emerge as living, breathing characters in their own right. S. might seem like a vast literary exercise, which it certainly is, but what keeps it from sinking into pretentiousness is that the characters themselves are often quite self-aware about their own pretentiousness. As they become more and more comfortable with each other, they start to flirt, lightly at first and then more heavily, and they make self-deprecating jokes. That isn’t to say that they don’t take themselves and their work very seriously, particularly when it seems that their lives also might be in danger from the same people Straka spent a lifetime running from, but that the experience of reading the book is, in some ways, lighter and funnier than one might expect due to the nature of their interactions.