Monday, June 2, 2014

Review: S by Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams

Title: S
Author: Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams
Page #: 472

Book Blurb: One book. Two readers. A world of mystery, menace, and desire.

A young woman picks up a book left behind by a stranger. Inside it are his margin notes, which reveal a reader entranced by the story and by its mysterious author. She responds with notes of her own, leaving the book for the stranger, and so begins an unlikely conversation that plunges them both into the unknown.

THE BOOK: Ship of Theseus, the final novel by a prolific but enigmatic writer named V. M. Straka, in which a man with no past is shanghaied onto a strange ship with a monstrous crew and launched onto a disorienting and perilous journey.

THE WRITER: Straka, the incendiary and secretive subject of one of the world’s greatest mysteries, a revolutionary about whom the world knows nothing apart from the words he wrote and the rumours that swirl around him.

THE READERS: Jennifer and Eric, a college senior and a disgraced grad student, both facing crucial decisions about who they are, who they might become, and how much they’re willing to trust another person with their passions, hurts, and fears.

S. , conceived by filmmaker J. J. Abrams and written by award-winning novelist Doug Dorst, is the chronicle of two readers finding each other in the margins of a book and enmeshing themselves in a deadly struggle between forces they don’t understand. It is also Abrams and Dorst’s love letter to the written word.

The minute that I heard about this book's existence I was excited and for a good reason. While the book blurb labels S as the "love letter to the written word" I would go further than that and say that it's a book specifically created for bibliophiles who just love the experience of reading a physical book. The actual format of the book just makes you want to read it regardless of the quality of the multi-layered story. The inner book Ship of Theseus is marked with a library cataloging sticker on the spine and has the weathered fabric outside that is reminiscent of the older editions of classic novels. The pages have also been weathered and have the brownish yellowish color of a book that has aged on the shelf. It even has the old musty book smell! I think the inserts left by Jen and Eric only add to the appeal of novel and it actually makes it a public and engaging reading experience. I say public because there is no way that you can pull something out of the book like the map of the tunnels written on a large napkin and not have someone ask you a question about it. One problem that I had was with the eotvos wheel inserted in the back of the book because I really had no idea how to use it or how it factored into the actual Ship of Theseus text.

All that being said I should probably talk about the reading experience and the quality of the writing apart from the so called gimmicks. First, I did find that the book was a little hard to get into initially and I think that is partly due to the fact that it's difficult to decide how to navigate the text. Do you just read the Straka text and then the marginalia or do you stop mid sentence to read one of Jen or Eric's thoughts in the margin? I personally made the choice to read a whole page of text and then go back and read all of the notes made in the margins on that page.

Secondly, it took me about 20 pages to grasp the fact that even the margin notes were more complicated than they seemed. Pay close attention to the color of the ink used in the notes because a change of color signifies a change in the time that Jen or Eric wrote it.

Thirdly, I did find that I was actually more interested in the story told through Jen and Eric's notes than I was with the Straka text. Their growing romantic relationship and determination to figure out the secrets of Straka's life felt more accessible than the metaphorically heavy tale of a man who has no idea who he is and can't really explain why he is desperate to find the woman named Sola. I felt that at points in the Ship of Theseus narrative the story tended to stagnate and the margin notes kept me from putting the book down for a length of time. Although I do have to point out that I still enjoyed the Straka text on its own with its level of intellectual depth and a number of perfectly quotable lines.

The only part that I'm truely sad about is that both of the main story-lines are left completely open ended and I'm one of those readers that likes a sense of closure to books. Additionally, there are a number of websites tied to the book and to the Straka name that I have yet to explore, so I'm a little comforted by the fact that my experience with S has not completely ended. I even think it would be worthwhile to reread the book again just to encounter some of the details that I might have missed the first time through.

All in all I would say that S is a captivating read whose format and actual content will keep people entertained for a number of hours. I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in an innovative reading experience mixed in with a bit of mystery and political intrigue.