Literary Love: “S.” by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Don’t get me wrong. It’s also a significant challenge. It’s one of the few [only?] books that you have to decide for yourself how to read. You can read the entirety of Ship of Theseus all the way through, either with or without FXC’s footnotes, then go back for the footnotes, Eric and Jen’s notes, and whatever inserts there might be. You can alternate: chapter of Ship of Theseus, notes; chapter of Ship of Theseus, notes; and so on and so forth. Then, there are the notes themselves. You can read them from start to finish, bouncing around through time. Or, once you figure out the chronological order of the various pen color exchanges, you can decide to just read all of each type through, then proceed to each other layer.

I personally decided to read everything at once. In other words, I started each page with Ship of Theseus, and interrupted the flow of the text whenever a footnote or handwritten note does, regardless of chronological order, which is a bit slow-going at first (especially since sometimes you find yourself jumping all over the page, as the notes sometimes aren’t actually located next to the part of the text they reference, and you have to follow their arrows and such), but immensely rewarding once I settled into a rhythm. You have to keep multiple timelines in your head at once, but I often found the “flash-forwards” and foreshadowing of later events, both in Ship of Theseus and in Eric and Jen’s relationship, to be fascinating. Also, although the authors refuse to say in which way S. is meant to be read, I recommend the “all-at-once” method, as it leaves you as a reader feeling the same level of disorientation and sometimes apprehension as both the protagonist-within-the-novel-within-the-novel and the characters reading that novel, which is doubtfully accidental.

There is a lot to unpack in S. It’s a mystery novel. It’s a mystery novel about a mystery novel. And you, as a reader, can engage with it on numerous levels. If you are one of those people who loves completely immersing themselves in a complex, mysterious mythology, you can take part in Eric and Jen’s investigations along with them. There’s a decryption wheel at the back of the book that apparently can help you unlock all of the messages that Straka and FXC were writing back and forth to each other, and there are a bunch of websites filled with people debating theories, not unlike on Abrams’ cult TV sensation, Lost.

But, for me, while I find that puzzle aspect fascinating in theory, I am much more interested in the human element–which was true with Lost as well. I was content to (and more interested in) watching Eric and Jen investigate than in attempting to do it myself, and cared less about figuring out every loose end than I was in simply experiencing Eric and Jen’s relationship. When read this way, S., while dense and complex in construction and format, can also be seen first and foremost as a modern-day epistolary novel. What might make it even more stunning is that, more often than not, we’re not reading long, drawn-out letters between two people but simply short sentences, not unlike tweets, and yet they are filled with such life and written with such strong voices that the characters gradually assemble before your eyes, emerging as three-dimensional people. You find yourself smiling along with their little jokes, feeling genuine joy at their triumphs, discoveries, and evolving love, as well as true concern when danger seems to be setting in.

Just as the book feels lived in–literally so, as, again, the book’s physical authenticity and attention to detail nearly fools you into thinking you’re holding the actual artifact of their relationship–so do the characters. And it’s all in the notes they write, which also reflects Straka and F.X.C., who as far as we know, never met in person. It’s even possible that Straka didn’t actually exist but was an identity created by multiple people, all of whom were part of the S. Could F.X.C. have fallen in love with an illusion? Which in turn reflects S., the protagonist of Ship of Theseus, not only in his love for a woman who he may not even really know and with whom he has only spent a handful of moments, but also in the fact that he is constantly searching for his own identity, and eventually questioning whether who he was matters as much as who he currently is and chooses to be, a theme which in turn circles back to Eric and Jen, each of whom have had pasts large parts of which they’d like to forget, and each of whom is at a turning point in their lives, unsure at the start of the novel of who they want to be and if that is at all the same as who they once thought they were or wanted to be. They at times wonder if they even know who they are at all or whether these doubts are just brought about by falling further and further down the Straka rabbit hole.

And that’s perhaps S.‘s greatest trick. By the time you get to the end of the book, you realize that these were never separate stories. The entire thing–text, footnotes, notes, materials between the pages that force you to be constantly mindful of how you’re holding the book, lest they fall out–is all a single story, and as complex and mindbending as that story is, when you boil it down to its heart, it’s ultimately about love: a romance between two academics falling in love over their shared love of a book in which two writers communicate their feelings for one another through the story of two people perpetually torn apart due to a struggle between feelings of duty and stirrings of the heart. Meanwhile, the entire book, as a piece of writing and as a physical object, is a work of enormous love.

You could say that S. is a perfect Möbius strip: over its course, postmodern literary technique and metanarrative eventually seem to give way to pure, unfettered emotion, yet at the same time, that emotion and heart are inextricable from the metanarrative that first gave it life. Perhaps never before has love–on multiple levels–so literally flourished within the pages of a book.

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Author: Robert Berg

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