When I first picked up this book I had no idea what I was looking at. Now, I can’t believe there isn’t more hype about this thing – it’s kinda awesome. Conceived by the ubiquitous J.J. Abrams and penned (apparently quite literally) by three-time Jeopardy winner and novelist Doug Dorst – this reading experience is unlike anything you’re likely to have seen before.
Here’s the gist – once you open the cellophane and break the seal on the sleeve, you have access to a seasoned and archaic looking book called “The Ship of Theseus”. Upon cracking said book open you’ll be confronted with an explosion of notes in margins, scribblings between text and all kinds of doo-dads stuffed in the pages. It was a bit overwhelming at first (especially since, again, I had no idea what this was) but as soon as I started to get the concept I started to get excited.
“The Ship of Theseus” is a library book that a grad student, Jen, finds tucked away and out of sight on a library shelf. She happens to be fascinated with the book’s mysterious author, V.M. Straka, but becomes even more fascinated with notes that have been made in this book by a previous owner/reader. On a lark, Jen starts to leave notes in the book responding to the person that left the original scribblings. To her surprise, a mysterious, expunged scholar responds in kind and soon Jen and “Eric” have a fluid dialogue playing out through this, using the book as a dead drop for their communique. This dialogue plays out in different timelines throughout the book (with certain “eras’ in the conversation written in different colored ink) and incorporates and references many of the items stuffed in the pages. These items are classic Abrams – a decoder wheel, mysterious pictures and postcards, a couple of heart wrenching love letters and, of course, newspaper scraps of a suspicious obituary, among other things.
The Ship of Theseus itself is a pretty good story, kudos to Dorst for that. Abrams also made a really cool trailer for the book which gives you some visual clues to the story line – a passenger with no memory stuck on a mysterious ship, a crew of men with mouths sewn shut and a sense of urgency and murder lingering on every page. The novel is a story of the oppressed fighting an industrial oppressor, it is the story of revolt through time and it is the story of a man trying to find a woman. Those three pillars hold up the writing as it shifts between times and realities, seemingly present from times colonial to World War I and II and even beyond. The nagging nature of the protagonist not knowing his identity or purpose yet plodding on reminded me of Hamsun’s “Hunger” – like you’re so into someone’s head that you can’t help but want to get out. To be honest, if it weren’t for the inked subplot the book itself would be ho-hum (like “man, this would make a good Twilight Zone episode but kinda drags as a 460+ page book”). But to look at the book S. as just the novel The Ship of Theseus would be shortsighted considering the Gestalt of the concept – the book + notes + inserted materials – is truly what makes this an awesome read.
The story in the margins is a simple exposition of two characters as they fall in love. This bookshelves their written intent which is to discover the true identity of the author of the book (V.M. Straka, the fictional writer, is rumored to have been a spy, revolutionary, recluse and murderer) which ends up attracting the attention (and sometimes wrath) of scholarly colleagues and a mysterious illuminati-esque group called “S.”. This sub-plot or lateral-plot, whatever it is, is engaging and fun, feels more human than the novel’s script and ultimately softens the book making it accessible for those than can multi-task. Do the S. hunt down the college kids? Do the college kids find out who Straka is? Is Straka a killer and who are the S.? These are the questions asked (and ultimately answered) in the margins of The Ship of Theseus.
But it doesn’t stop after you’ve read The Ship of Theseus or after you’ve run through the patchwork script that is the “handwritten” notes…and it doesn’t stop after you explore all the things they’ve stuffed in the book – there’s more! Hidden in foot notes are messages from yet another fictional character, the translator of The Ship of Theseus and someone who plays an integral part of all of the stories in S. – FX Caldiera. That’s right, what else would you expect from a guy that creates hand-cam monster memes and mental labyrinths like Lost except for hidden messages laced in a story that is scribbled in a book? To be sure, there is much more to discover in “S.” (the wikipedia page has practically no spoilers or decodings yet) but I love what I have discovered: a challenging and clever experience that is the evolution of the narrative. Find out yourself – if you’re up for the challenge and can multi-task like a mo fo this will be right up your alley. But don’t look for it in your local library as it’s being denied by librarians and driving them insane. Do me a favor and let me know if you go crazy from this book or if the idea of such a tasked read simply drives you crazy!